It all started with a ramp, or a lack thereof.
Scottie grew up in the synagogue community, a kid everyone loved. Neither the cerebral palsy diagnosis he received as a baby nor the wheelchair that carried him from his earliest days ever dampened his spirit, his smile, his radiance. Scottie’s determination to play an equal part in our community life demanded so much commitment and effort on his part and that of his family. On the Shabbat morning he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, Scottie needed to be lifted in his wheelchair by four family friends up onto the bimah. With each small triumph, and each obstacle overcome, our community celebrated his courage; yet, with each “step” Scottie took, we became more aware of how relatively little we had done, and how far we had to go, to become a truly inclusive community.
In Parashat Ki Tavo, we learn of the Hebrew formula that each Israelite was required to recite upon offering the thanksgiving gift of first fruits in the Promised Land. In one sense, this set liturgy can be seen as unifying and inclusive, creating a ceremony equally accessible and empowering to all. In practice, however, it became clear that not all Israelites could participate in the ceremony in the intended manner. The Mishnah informs us that originally this formula was only to be recited in Hebrew (Sotah 7:2-3). In time, a prompter was provided for those who could not recite the Hebrew. Eventually, to save those individuals in need of prompting the embarrassment of appearing inept, it became standard practice for all to repeat the formula after the prompter (Bikkurim 3:7).
The ramp came first. Then a total redesign of our sanctuary lowered the bimah and brought our podium to the floor. Mezuzot on the bottom halves of our doors; a separate accessible bathroom and remotely activated doors; removable sanctuary seats that will allow space for wheelchairs amongst the congregation, as opposed to being accommodated in a back corner–all these conscious modifications were intended to make our space more welcoming to all. With each step of progress, however, we become more aware of, and sensitive to, the challenges ahead.
We are told that the Torah is not in the heavens (“Lo bashamayim hi,” Deut. 30:12), that one should need not climb to the sky to bring it down. Yet, despite all our best intentions, greater access to our bimah awakened us to the fact that–for the one sitting in a wheelchair who approaches our Torah reader’s table–the Torah might as well be in the heavens. It is too high to see for those who cannot stand from their chair. If we had only begun our thought process from the perspective of the one seeking access, the entire design might look different today.
We have much for which we can be proud as we continue to shape our spaces and reshape our understanding of tradition. Our sages certainly understood the need to react according to changing needs and evolve. Our understanding of inclusivity, however, must begin with the perspective of the one who is bringing the gifts of their presence. The reactive approach to others’ needs may be admirable, but it potentially demands too much sacrifice and too high a personal cost for the one seeking access. He might even turn away before placing himself in the situation of asking for accommodation. True empathy would have us examine and shape our rituals, traditions and customs proactively, so that no person seeking access is left feeling like they are fighting for, or being granted, accommodation.
Scottie, you deserved so much more than a ramp.
Craig Scheff has served as rabbi of Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York since 1995. He is also Adjunct Lecturer in Professional Skills in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary.