Shabbat shalom.
Welcome to my synagogue.
This is my pulpit. The Torah behind me – well, it’s mine.
I really enjoy my stained glass there. Isn’t it beautiful?
I love the staff of Temple Beth Ami, who do more to create a welcoming religious school program for ALL children than any other congregation in Washington.
By the way, they are mine too.
I have a relationship to G-d. G-d is in my life, and matters to me.
And I am proud to own all this.
But here is the thing:
It belongs to YOU as well.
Every bit of it. Every one of you owns it. Just as I do.
From the bema to the Torah, to the stained glass windows, and to all our terrific staff at Temple Beth Ami -- this is all yours.
It is your birthright. And one that you have chosen to be yours as well.
In fact, our tradition even tells us that all generations … past, present, and future … were at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. So, not only are the pulpit and the torah and the stained glass and the rabbi, ours. But the totality of our tradition as well.
Like it says on the late, great Mayor Ed Koch’s tombstone – “"My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish." And while that didn’t work out so well for Daniel Pearl, who Mayor Koch was quoting on his own gravestone, it did, Thank G-d, work out well for us.
Again, you own all this. It is your birthright.
G-d made each of us in G-ds image. Not just those here who have gone, or will go, on to win Nobel prizes, or to become U.S. Senators. Not just those who are, or will, become rich or famous.
There is a spark of G-d in each of us.
And, if this Congregation mirrors the U.S. population, 20% of us (according to the Census) have a physical, sensory, psychiatric or intellectual disability. Indeed, polling shows that 51% of likely voters either have a disability or a loved one with a disability.
I am a part of the 20% that has a disability. As you look at me, you can’t see it. But trust me, my disability is there.
I have dyslexia. I could not really read or write until I was 12. That was the same year I stopped growing. So I was 5’10 and illiterate. A lot of people made fun of me, calling me stupid, lazy or both. I got beat up, and had few friends.
Feeling isolated, I put myself in a vulnerable position and was attacked by someone older at my school that I wrongly trusted. Sadly, that is quite common for people with disabilities.
But even then, all that belongs to the Jewish people – that was mine.
But it took me a long time to learn it. I should have learned then what I now know -- that when the Jewish people really needed help from G-d, when we were slaves in Egypt, his instrument was a person with a disability. That person was Moses.
At first, Moses thought that because of his disability that he should not lead. He said to G-d, "O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue."
He did not want to lead because it was difficult for him to talk!
But Moses had tremendous supports from Aaron who some refer to as the “first assistive communication device”. And with the proper supports from G-d and Aaron, Moses – a person with a disability -- led us out of Egypt and into freedom and to Israel.
Later, in my own life, I had my own support system. I didn’t lead our people out of Egypt. But I did learn how to read, and was even on Dean’s list at Emory where I was active in Hillel. But when a car accident put me temporarily in a wheelchair, I could not even go into the Hillel. I had a new disability, one that everyone could see. It was before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislated that new and public buildings had to be handicap accessible.
There was a long flight of stairs into the Hillel building. I could not climb the stairs, and even when someone carried me up the stairs, my wheelchair did not allow me to go from room to room, or even into the bathroom because of the narrow doors.
Likewise, even though most of Washington’s Jewish buildings are now ADA accessible, today many Jews with disabilities cannot get into into them. It is not because of stairs and narrow doorways. It is because of narrow minds, unexamined thinking and obstacles that seem too steep to climb.
This is ironic because we Jews are very proud of our history in the American civil rights movement. My parents were civil rights activists in North Carolina where I grew up. I remember a KKK cross burning near my home, and the risks people took to help others. I bet those of you who are of my parent’s generation also fought against separate schools, buses, restaurants and more. You took risks then.
But here’s the dirty little secret of our larger Jewish family. We were there on integration for African Americans. We have largely been there on gay rights, women’s rights and immigration. But our own institutions – our Jewish schools, camps, religious schools and more -- frequently discriminate against people with disabilities.
The irony continues because Jews are some of the best doctors and leaders in disability services and research – and yet we frequently don’t allow people with disabilities to participate fully in Jewish life.
These are institutions that we – you and me – we own. They are ours, yet they discriminate – which means that we share responsibility for them. It means that when we don’t speak up and work for change, WE are all guilty of discrimination.
We are all Jews. These are our institutions. It’s time for us to say “heineni” (here I am) and make the discrimination stop.
I can see that some of you know exactly what I am talking about. For others you may be learning something new. But if you have a child with a serious disability, try getting them into our local Jewish day schools! You will find that if they are slightly outside the mold of the “cookie cutter kids” that are on their way to Ivy league schools, the U.S. Senate, or Nobel laureate success, that with the exception of Sulam, there are few supports that our Jewish day schools will offer. But you will find that if your child has “behaviors” or mental health issues, or certain physical disabilities, or seizures, your child simply won’t be accepted to some of our Jewish day schools. Nor will he or she be accepted to many Jewish camps or religious schools. Washington is not alone in this respect. Things are so bad in New York City that the head of a major national Jewish organization commuted to NY from Boston for years because only in Boston would a Jewish day school accept and serve his child with a disability. And he’s not the only Jewish parent making that commute for that reason.
We are lucky here in our congregation. Temple Beth Ami does not discriminate. It is an inclusive synagogue that understands that every Jew is made in the image of G-d and that everyone should feel welcomed, valued and respected. That is why I am a member here and not at one of the many other Congregations that is closer to where we live.
Temple Beth Ami knows that some kids and adults need a little more time, personal attention, or even a 1-1 support person. If you are in a wheelchair there is a cutout right there in the rows of pews so you can sit near the front, and are not relegated to sit in the back simply because you are in a wheelchair.
Even at Temple Beth Ami, however, we can still do more. Members with disabilities should come forward and ask for whatever supports they need so they can feel fully at home. Perhaps we should form an inclusion committee to ensure that all our members can fully participate here. We need to remember that being physically present isn’t enough – we need to ALL feel, regardless of our abilities, at home here. And that means making everyone feel, and be, welcome and respected.
Look around. This is a wonderful Congregation. It’s ours. And so is every Jewish institution in Washington. We cannot simply stay inside our handicapped accessible doors here at TBA and ignore the fact that some of our sister institutions in the Jewish community still discriminate.
Here is the thing … synagogues and institutions often embrace a value but when the time comes to act upon that value, they fall short. And the reason why … it’s not because it is not a value … justice and inclusion certainly are certainly the values of all our Jewish institutions.
It is simply not a priority.
Well, the time has come for more synagogues and institutions to make this a priority. For how long do plan on acting as if people with disabilities were not at Sinai with us receiving the Torah? For how long do we plan on providing the pearls of our heritage only to the people capable of receiving them in the way the “my way or the highway” ways they are all-too-often presented? For how long will the keys to our treasure trove of tradition only be given to those who can use those keys in one rigid way? We would not tolerate it if a prestigious school such as Georgetown Prep or Friends School rejected someone because they were Jewish. Why should we tolerate it when Jewish institutions reject people because they have disabilities?
You know … most people who study the Torah are in agreement that the most unsavory of all of our Torah portions is called “Tazria”. This is the portion that discusses the various skin diseases that afflicted the Israelites. It talks about inflammation and pus and discharge and … BLECH. But here is the remarkable thing. 3200 years ago … when we were totally unaware of these diseases. We didn’t understand if they were contagious. We didn’t understand how they are cured. Yet the Torah describes how 3200 years ago, the rituals for interacting with people who were suffering were not centered on separating, but rather on re-integration.
It’s up to us. Im Tirzu, Ain Zo Agada – if you dream it, it can be.
And, given that people with disabilities have tremendous challenges finding and keeping jobs, we as a Congregation should find ways to enable teens with disabilities to get internships where they can build their experience and resumes. And those of us with time and talent can volunteer to tutor kids in our congregation or serve as “job coaches” for members with disabilities to help them succeed in the work place.
Every person is made in the image of G-d. And if they are in a wheelchair, or deaf, or blind, or have Autism or anything else – there is no more or less G-d in them than if they were a Nobel Prize winner or an Olympic athlete.
You know, there is a famous story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) in which Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asks the prophet Elijah, who is said to be the harbinger of the messianic age, “When will the messiah come?” Elijah responds, “Go ask him yourself.” Rabbi Joshua said, “He here? Now? Where is he?” Elijah responded, “at the entrance to the gates of Rome.” “How will I know him?” Elijah said, “he sits among the people afflicted with disease. But, while everyone else takes all of their bandages off at once and then re-bandages themselves, he takes his own bandages off one at a time so that at the moment he is called, he will not need too much time.”
My friends, the messiah sits with the 20% of our community with a disability. If we ignore this 20%, we are, in effect, ignoring the messiah. Not literally … well, maybe, who knows? But, most certainly we will miss the messiah spiritually, emotionally, and indeed, because our values were not transformed into our priorities.
Ending the discrimination of people with disabilities in the Jewish community is not only good for the people with disabilities. It’s good for those who don’t have disabilities as well. After all, without Moses, we’d still be in Egypt. Without Isaac who was blind, Jacob who limped, Job who was afflicted with all kinds of issues, psalmists who wrote lamentations, prophets whom other people considered crazy, where would we be?
Temple Beth Ami is a wonderful place. It belongs to me. It belongs to you. Together we can make it a platform to ensure that no other Jewish institution discriminates against people because they have a disability.
Thank you and Shabbat shalom.

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