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Saturday, August 23, 2014

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Rabbi Geoffrey Haber

A couple brought their child, who is developmentally disabled, to synagogue. As the Ark opened, the little boy blurted out, “Torah.” His parents were exhilarated: this little boy, struggling to express himself, used appropriate words in the appropriate context. It was a moment of triumph.

But their exhilaration was short-lived as they were told to take the boy out. Afterward, this couple was told that his outburst disrupted the service and they should not bring him anymore. Angrily, they stormed out of the building and refused to come back. How could they stay in a congregation that treated people with disabilities in such a manner?

Our Torah teaches in Leviticus: “Do not set a stumbling block before the blind.” This asks us to help smooth the way for those with disabilities to live as normal a life as possible by removing obstacles from their path. It asks us to show a little sensitivity, understanding and caring; to help our fellow human beings; to live by the dicta “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “All Israel is responsible for one another.”

There was a time not long ago when people would spurn those with special needs. Either out of ignorance or fear or because of stigma or awkwardness, people would avoid the issue of disabilities and disabled individuals. But now the quality of life of those with disabilities has a place on the Jewish communal agenda, for those with disabilities are, indeed, a part of the Jewish community.

This is abundantly clear in the Torah. In Exodus, Moses comes before Pharaoh demanding that he let the people of Israel go free. Pharaoh asks: “Who will go?” Moses responds: “With our young and with our old, we will go forth. With our sons and with our daughters, with our herds and with our flocks, we will go.” Stridently, Moses tells Pharaoh that the whole community will go forth into the light of freedom.

Our synagogues must be welcoming places for all people, including those with special needs. When Moses tells Pharaoh “everyone” will go and worship God, he means everyone! Further, the Hebrew word for temple literally means “house of holiness,” or more commonly, “sanctuary.” The Hebrew word for synagogue, literally means “house of gathering.” The synagogue must be a sanctuary to all who wish to gather in assembly under its roof, including those with special needs.

Synagogues seeking to welcome those with special needs can be inclusive by making their buildings wheelchair accessible, including the bimah, by having infrared hearing aids to allow the hearing impaired to listen to the service with greater ease and by having large print siddurim for the visually impaired. But the biggest change needed is educating congregants to welcome those with disabilities into their midst.

When we make efforts to welcome all, we, too, can claim: “With our young and with our old, we will go forth.” With everyone in our community, we go forth into the light of accessible worship and freedom of religious practice for all who wish to pray, study Torah and perform acts of lovingkindness with us.

Rabbi Geoffrey Haber is director of spiritual care at Baycrest in Toronto.

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