Judi's Journal 2-17-2012

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Cruising the aisles: a Jewish view on being physically challenged

By Judi Siegal

Apples, oranges, pomegranates, pineapples fly by in a mélange of colors. Bread displays and stacks of cans tower over me as I cruise by at a speed of ¼ mile per hour on a conveyance that is half golf cart and half shopping cart. Watch out! “They call me Baby Driver and once upon a set of wheels, hit the road and I’m gone, what’s your number, I wonder how your engines feel.” It’s me, I’m whizzing my way down the aisles like the traffic on S.R. 200 at noontime. I’m in and out performing “U-ies” with a touch of my wrist. Nothing like a motorized shopping cart for a little shopping fun, right?
Actually it has taken me a while to even attempt one of these contraptions, but when my old enemy Mr. Arthur Ritis acted up, I reluctantly admitted I could no longer manage the supermarket aisles without assistance. So here I am, wending my way around grabbing items off the shelves from the ease of my vehicle. I’m pretty good at it until one of them ran out of juice and I was dead in the water. I was tempted to call the AAA. (I opted for another cart instead.) While I hope this situation will be temporary as I ready myself for knee replacement surgery, I cannot help but to wonder about all those whose situations are far more serious than mine.
In the Hebrew Bible, we find many who are faced with disabilities. Jacob after his encounter with a heavenly being walks with a limp and his wife Leah has “weak” eyes, probably near-sighted. This condition, of course, is completely correctable today, but in biblical times it was a different matter.
We know that when Isaac went to bless his sons, he could no longer see clearly, perhaps he had cataracts due to advanced age. Correctable today but not in ancient times. Had this been so, the whole future of the Jewish people might have been changed if Esau had received the blessing from his father and not Jacob who deceived his father in order to get the blessing of the first born.
We know that Moses was a stutterer (if I had to speak divine words or go before Pharaoh I might have too!) and his brother spoke for him. Therapy today would have helped Moses but even so his legacy was a great one and his disability overlooked.
My favorite physically, actually mentally disabled person in the Bible is King Saul. He was a manic-depressive. No wonder we have Jewish shrinks! His relief came in the form of music therapy provided by David playing on his harp (today we use iPods).
By providing us with flawed characters, the Bible sensitizes us to the needs of others. In my oft-quoted passage of Leviticus 19, we learn that “you shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev.19:14). Throughout the ages, Jews have provided social services for the disabled enabling them to be functioning members of society.
In Judaism today, synagogues and schools have provided for those physically and mentally challenged. In West Hartford, Conn., a special school, one of its kind, has been established to teach Judaism to children with special needs. I remember working with such a student and when he recited the Shema (Jewish statement of belief) at his Bar Mitzvah, there wasn’t a dry eye in the synagogue. And to our credit, synagogues are being barrier-free and handicapped accessible. In my own congregation, we request that you stand “if you are able” and we assist people with canes, wheelchairs, etc. While our community does not offer this, bigger congregations have sound systems for the hearing-impaired and large print prayer books for the people with low vision. And it is taken for granted today, that there are handicap-accessible restrooms.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. The mission of Jewish Disability Awareness Month is “to unite Jewish communities and organizations for the purpose of raising awareness and supporting meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Jewish life.” The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, for example, is a member of the religious organization of the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition.
While there have been many steps to make our parks and public places barrier-free, there are still situations today that are difficult for the handicapped to maneuver. Let us make our places accessible to all to enjoy installing ramps, paved walk areas and elevators, infrared sound systems and closed captioning for recorded performances. And bless those merchants who provide motorized shopping carts!

Judi is a former teacher and Jewish educator.  She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.