A minister and national expert in faith and disability, the Rev. William Gaventa praised the Jewish community for its advances in including individuals with special needs.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Evan Jaffe of the Flemington Jewish Center, who was among the first to provide adult bar and bat mitzva ceremonies for people with severe disabilities, offered what he termed “a fly in the ointment”: a long rabbinic tradition of exclusion.
Taking turns, the pair shared the keynote address at the first regional Synagogue Summit on Building an Inclusive Jewish Community. About 40 people from 17 synagogues took part in the Feb. 12 event in Whippany, discussing ways to improve access to those with disabilities and overcome remaining obstacles.
The conference, held at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus, was sponsored by MetroWest ABLE, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the Linda Bunis Haller Foundation, and the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
It included time for networking and a panel discussion featuring representatives of three area synagogues discussing their successes and challenges in providing physical access and inclusive community programming. Breakout sessions helped synagogues get started, understand how to work alongside families, and plan for the next steps.
Gaventa, director of community and congregational supports at the Elizabeth Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said he often tells Christian colleagues that Jewish models for inclusion are “a marvel.”
Among the resources he cited were Praying with Lior, Ilana Trachtman’s documentary about a Jewish boy with Down’s syndrome; Rabbi Bradley Artson’s writings about his son Jacob, diagnosed with severe autism; and local efforts like the WAE Center, the alternative learning center of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled.
“These are some of the most creative things,” said Gaventa, who trains community services staff in accessibility. “I go to my Christian colleagues and say, ‘If they can do this, why can’t you?’”
Gaventa suggested that many heroes in the Torah had disabilities, including Moses (speech impairment), David (hyperactivity), and Saul and Jonah (depression).
“Adam and Eve had ADD,” he said. “They forgot things quickly and took no responsibility for their actions.”
He also cited well-known biblical injunctions — from “Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) to “Make the crooked way straight and the rough way smooth” (Luke 3:5), as examples of the two faith traditions’ awareness of accommodating those with special needs.
“If that’s not access, I don’t know what is,” Gaventa said.
But Jaffe suggested ways religious communities fail to live up to such standards.
“The biblical heroes with impediments are always trotted out to show we are all made in God’s image,” said Jaffe, who founded Open ROAD (Religious Organizations Accepting Disability). “But what about people who are severely compromised mentally? Do they count?”
By the time of the rabbinic period, “physical disabilities don’t matter” in terms of an individual’s ability to perform certain rituals, he said. “What became important was da’at, or cognition.”
For example, the shoteh, a category that could include those with mental illness or with cognitive disabilities, was exempt from reciting the Sh’ma or leading a congregation in prayer.
“Those without da’at are stigmatized; they are out,” Jaffe said. “There is almost no action one can validly perform in the Mishna’s system without da’at.”
Jaffe’s mission over the last 20 years, he said, has been to find a way to redefine da’at to allow the developmentally disabled greater access to Jewish ritual life.
“With a little jiggering of what da’at means, one can get there,” he said.
Both men agreed that the key question for inclusion becomes, “How do you know when somebody understands?”
“I think we way too narrowly define what understanding is,” said Jaffe.
As an example, he told a story about a young man who had almost no ability to speak or stand still. On the day of his bar mitzva ceremony, he came up to the bima and spoke the one syllable he could and, more to the point, stood still with his arms at his side through the ceremony.
“His father was in tears,” said Jaffe. “‘How could he stand like that while you read the Torah?’ he asked. I said, ‘It’s because he understands the significance.’ Understanding takes so many incredible shapes and forms.”