The following is an excerpt from a stunning sermon written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Rachel Ackerman, Director of Education at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Although written for the Torah portion Noach, I am proud to share it here in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, as its message of inclusion is timeless. Rachel is willing to share the full sermon with anyone interested.
I offer this sermon to you as a teaching – as a conversation – as an opportunity for us to reflect.
It’s a different look at the classic tale of Noah and the ark.
There are a lot of questions we can ask about the animals on Noah’s ark.
How many types of animals were there? How did they all fit? Did they come on by twosies-twosies or by sevens? What did they all eat? How did they all get along?
One question most of us have never asked is, “How did the animals physically get onto the ark?”
Perhaps we don’t ask this question because the answer is obvious. There must have been a ramp.
In nearly every picture of Noah’s ark, every Noah’s ark children’s toy and every image of the ark engrained in our minds, there is a ramp. But, the text never tells us there was a ramp, and the commentaries I’ve sifted through don’t mention anything about it. All we know is that the animals came through an opening and got onto the ark.
Yet, it’s obvious. Without a ramp, it would be challenging for the animals to get on the ark. For some, stairs would be quite difficult, and for those without opposable thumbs, the rope ladder I saw in one picture seemed like a fairly ridiculous option.
The animals needed a ramp to enter the ark.
And many people need ramps to enter our synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions. It’s obvious.
We’d like to imagine that all of our institutions are completely accessible, but we know this isn’t the case. As Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale wrote, “A photograph in my office says it all. It is of a man sitting in his wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of steps, leading up to the entrance of the synagogue. Over its door, is emblazoned the sentence [from Psalms], “Open the gates of righteousness for me, I will enter through them.” The man sits with his back to the doors, unable to enter. As a Jewish community we have failed him…”
When we don’t have ramps, we fail members of our community. The ark needed a ramp. Every Jewish institution needs a ramp. People need ramps to get onto the bimah. They need lifts to get into a mikveh and elevators to access the floor where they have a meeting or class.
And, over the years, we have become better about installing physical ramps.
Stairs, however, are not the only stumbling blocks.
There are Jews with physical, developmental, and learning disabilities; Jews with hearing, speech, language, health, and visual impairments; there are Jews with traumatic brain injuries.
Thinking about the variety of opportunities that our synagogues and other institutions provide: worship, camping, religious school, how many people still sit with their backs to our doors, unable to enter?
As a Jewish community, how many Jews are we failing?
As Jews, particularly Reform Jews, we sometimes look out the windows more often than we illuminate what’s going on inside our institutions.
We look out windows, see injustice, and we leave the walls of the synagogue to engage in tikkun olam.
We look out the windows to people we don’t know, people who will never walk through the walls of our institutions, and we are, rightfully, called to action…But, we also need to shine the light inward to see the people inside our institutions. We need to see the absence of those individuals too afraid to come inside and unable to access Jewish life.
If we shine the light inward we will see the man who stopped coming to services because he was shushed for his uncontrollable ticks.
If we shine the light inward we will see the camper with Asperger’s Syndrome who was spit on by the other kids in the cabin when her counselors left the room.
If we shine the light inward we will see a rabbinical student with a learning disability who, listening to the advice of rabbis on the field based on their personal experiences, did not document this disability on her rabbinical school application. And if we continue to shine the light inward we will see her advising other prospective rabbinical students to do the same.
How long will it be before we build ramps, physical and metaphorical, that allow every person, regardless of ability, to access Judaism?
How long will it be before we shine the light inward so that 100% of our community can look out the window together and engage in tikkun olam?
It is our responsibility to teach everyone according to his or her needs.
It is our responsibility to remove stumbling blocks.
It is our responsibility to make sure that OUR houses of prayer ARE houses of prayer for ALL people.
We need to acknowledge our fear and discomfort, and then allow ourselves to become vulnerable to what we feel ill-equipped to handle; we need to be vulnerable and admit the failures of our community so that we can become more accessible.
If we shine the light and face what we fear, we can begin to engage in the work of repair. Then, when we shine the light, we have the potential to see:
Camp counselors and teachers who are trained to work with children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders who employ modalities of service leading and Torah study that are accessible to those with learning disabilities.
A teenager with Autism who leads his congregation in acts of social justice.
Children and adults who have learned that the values of compassion, relationship, and friendship far outweigh the initial discomfort experienced in getting accustomed to symptoms of disabilities.
We need to shine the light inward.