A woman in blue stands smiling with one hand on the arm of a bearded man in a wheelchair. Visibly cropped from a larger photo.
Disability, Judaism

Remembering My Grandmother on the Sabbath of Song

We buried my grandmother last week, and as I sat and grieved with my aunt and uncle in services at their synagogue this past Friday, I thought that it was terribly fitting that the first Sabbath after my grandmother’s passing was the Sabbath in which Jews read the Song of the Sea, known in Jewish tradition as the Sabbath of Song.

From a combination of hypertone and questionable talent, I can only really sing in a very loud full voice.  Anything else is a very subdued, flattened rendering of a melody, incapable of reaching a broad range of notes.  For those who pray with me regularly, you know that, in those synagogues that I choose to call home, I sing freely in that voice, confident that the command to love God with all of my heart, soul, and being requires that I sing in a way that allows me to actually pray, rather than to struggle to contain tone, missing the melody and straining to keep up.

I didn’t always do this.  I had done it as a child, but somehow, a combination of family censure and self-consciousness had slowly quieted me down as a teen.  I was told that it was rude.  I was told that it was showboating.  I was told that it was not very good, and who did I think that I was fooling?  (This assessment by my siblings may have been accurate.)  I lacked the understanding of self, let alone the self possession, to realize that working so hard to contain the voice that God had given me, and the joy that I felt raising it in prayer, was wrong.

There were many factors to learning otherwise.  I gravitated towards the more traditional Jewish world where a great premium is placed on those who sing and pray with enthusiasm, whether they do it well or not.  I learned Hasidic ideas centered on the notion that we all have our own way to pray and that, in a community, we build upon each other.  I finally learned to accept to those voices that told me that who and what I was, though different, could add to beauty.

My grandmother, with her love of music, was one of the earliest such voices.  Grandma was a talented musician in her day, and may have, at one point, been a talented singer, I don’t know.  What I do know is that by the time that she was in her 70s, and I in my teens, both of us sang in such a way that departed from the ideal.

Yet, Grandma loved the harmonies of Jewish music, and she loved sitting with me and services so that we could sing them together.  Then, at some point in my mid teens, she noticed that I had stopped raising my voice to join hers.  That I was muted, swallowing as best as I could that explosive tendency of my diaphragm, avoiding harmony, because I couldn’t even gather the range for melody at the volume at which I was singing.

She asked me why, and I demurred, and she shook her head, no doubt thinking it was some sort of teenage thing, and just told me quietly that she loved making those harmonies with me, and that I should consider bringing them back.  That quiet love, that appreciation of my sincere intent and enjoyment of what we could create together was the first quiet seed of embracing my unique voice.

I learned that from my grandmother, the idea of embracing who you are, of celebrating were you are and living life on your own terms.  In a few weeks my movement of Judaism will publish a piece where I discuss the value of people with disabilities celebrating their own voices and their own unique contributions, but today I share with you that it was my grandmother started to help me embrace my voice.

Normally, when I’m in an unfamiliar place, I retreat to the quiet, lest I be an inconsiderate presence in a place that has not yet come to know me.  I believe that there’s a difference between evolving a place for your unique voice in a community that you’re going to call home, and bulldozing into a community where you are just passing through.

Last week, though, I raised my voice in full in that Sabbath of Song, in my aunt and uncle’s unfamiliar synagogue.  I mourn my grandmother, whose memory blesses me every day, but I think her for her wisdom and support, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to honor her memory on the Sabbath of Song.

Disability, Judaism

Welcomed Without Asking: Making Our Communities Inclusive to All

I got caught up in the discussion this week based upon a fantastic blog post that I did not write, posted on the blog of the Ruderman family foundation, linked here.  When I shared it to my Facebook page, with an exhortation for those in positions of leadership to change the exclusionary dynamic about which it was written, a friend in such a leadership position took issue with the fact that the mother in the piece had not, after all, asked for changes so that her family might be included.

This point, which has a certain facial appeal, falls down, I think, when one gets into application.  It’s nice that people will respond positively when asked, but I’m deeply concerned for those who don’t or can’t ask.

What of the single mother, uncomfortable and having already faced hostility from members of the congregation, as described in the post, who is afraid to address the leadership, which, might not only be imposing, but, in so many of our synagogues. is older, and/or male?  What of the parent. beleaguered by a life filled with challenges, who comes to synagogue for spiritual and human support, and simply does not have it in themselves for one more confrontation?  What of the parent who does not even know that their child has a diagnosis, and therefore knows no buzzwords with which to demand special treatment, but is merely looking for a place where they and their child are welcome?

What of the deaf person, seeking to attend services themselves, who, in the absence of an interpreter, or at least a person willing to look at a smart phone screen, is unable to make their wishes known?  What of the person with a mobility impairment who arrives at an inaccessible front door and can’t even breach the entry to ask if there’s another pathway inside?  What of the new self advocate who does not yet know exactly how to articulate his or her needs, looking for a spiritual community of support?

In the Passover Seder, as we are going through Jewish archetypes, one of the types of Jew described is the one “who does not know how to ask.”  The Haggadah tells us to start for that child, making asking unnecessary.

I think that this is a powerful lesson for inclusion.  Inclusion should be proactive, so that asking isn’t necessary, precisely because so many people cannot ask, or at least, facing an apparently hostile environment, will depart before ever asking.

Now, this is relatively easy when we are talking about mobility access, or even putting together a core from among the congregation that knows how to sign, or training ushers to look out for other visible disabilities and offer support, but what of behavioral disabilities?

After being told of my idea that the need to ask should be removed, my friend, mentioned above, challenged the idea that any and all behavior should be acceptable to a service leader, suggesting that the community has a right to regulate the disruptive effect of apparently aberrant behavior in the absence of a request for accommodation.

I think that this idea fails precisely because it makes inclusion dependent upon disability.  Leaving aside the vagaries of misdiagnosis, and the incidence of simple failure to diagnose an unknown condition, should acceptance and inclusion really be predicated upon the ability of medical science to quantify particular behavior?  The law craves such distinctions for rights to enforcement, but do we need them as we define how to welcome?

To my mind, if a service can continue with a particular behavior ongoing, (and there’s no question that the children’s behavior in the original blog post was insufficiently disruptive to derail services), then the community norm should be to accept it whether or not it comes with a diagnosis.

Isn’t a community more inclusive if we simply accept that some children (and adults) are more comfortable rocking, whether or not identified as autistic?  Isn’t a  community more inclusive if we accept that some people do better moving rather than sitting still, without predicating our acceptance on whether or not they have been diagnosed with an attention deficit or hyperactivity?

I reject the idea that forcing people to identify is necessary or right.  Certainly, at the very least it creates awkwardness and stigma.  In a worst-case scenario, it gives license to exclude from a community of support simply because someone isn’t carrying the right (metaphorical) paper.  I posit that a truly inclusive community would strive to broadly accept the habits and behavior of its members, without requiring an identity of disability.

Conversely, if a particular behavior is rendering worship untenable, or dangerous, or destructive, it seems to me that the identification of a disability at the root of that behavior isn’t an argument to ignore it or blithely accept it.  Under those circumstances, the goal is to find a mutually acceptable solution.  Again, I’d like to imagine a world where we don’t predicate such a willingness to collaborate on a diagnosis, and I accept the fact that, if no accommodation is possible, not even the law as applied to secular organizations requires an organization to accept programmatic destruction simply because the root cause of a person’s need is a disability.

My broad point is that the identification of a disability should not be the prerequisite for being welcomed into our community, even for those who present differently than some norm.  Not only would such a requirement turn certain people away at the door, and penalize others for being unaware of diagnoses, it adds an unnecessary burden to the already complex life of even those who would surely be granted accommodation on request.

If, instead, we make our communities as broadly welcoming and accessible as possible, we turn them into the places of love and support that we’ve always held them out to be.  It’s a sort of universal design for an accepting and inclusive congregation.  Yes, it allows people with disabilities and their parents to access our communities, but it also makes our communities open to the widest numbers of our potential fellow children of Israel, whether or not they fit these designations.

I invite all of you, clergy, lay leaders, and fellow community members to reimagine our environments from the ground up to include, rather than exclude.  Let’s strive for a baseline that accepts a broad range of humans, rather than reflexively excluding those acting somewhat differently than we.  Maybe then we can begin to find true inclusion.

Disability, Judaism

Saving the World, Over and Over, One Life at a Time.

“Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.”

I have known this quote from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 since literally before I can remember, which is to say that I literally do not remember a time before I knew it.  I even sang it as a child in a catchy tune at summer camp.  And, while the intellectual idea of the limitless value of one human life is a concept with which I have been comfortable since I was a teenager, I think that I sometimes lose it in my work.

As a consultant to corporations and nonprofits, and a former federal official, having the greatest impact for the most people is a watchword, and it should be.  And yet for all the talk of maximizing numbers, it’s nice to have a wake-up call about the power of helping an individual.

I have been privileged, since I moved to Boston, to have multiple interactions with the work of the Ruderman Family Foundation.  I have been honored to write, honored to consult, and honored to share whatever knowledge I have to contribute to important work.  Because I am something of a policy wonk and a technocrat, much of this discussion has been big picture.

Last week, however, I had the opportunity to experience the work of the Foundation through a different lens.  I had the dual experiences of my first meeting as a member of the Jewish Services Committee of Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, under whose auspices is found the RFF sponsored Transitions to Work Program, and of attending Sweet Sounds, the annual Gala of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, another program made possible by the Foundation.

In both situations, I heard deeply moving personal narratives from parents whose children’s lives had been completely transformed by these programs, from parents on the Jewish Services Committee whose son had transitioned from dependence to employment, to the moving story of Gateways parents who had relocated from New York so that their daughter with significant disabilities could have the Jewish education that was such a deeply cherished value for them.

Two lives in their own way saved.  Twice the entire world saved.  To hear these stories, to feel these stories, one cannot think that they were anything less.

We continue to strive for systemic change.  I would like to see comprehensive employment programs like Transitions replicated throughout the country.  Even more, I feel that the work of making Jewish education and Jewish heritage accessible and available to all Jews is a sacred mission, and that the Jewish world should be committed to expansion of Gateways style programs and services to its every level and facet as a moral imperative.  But these are big picture goals, and focus exclusively on them risks of securing the tremendous power of each individual experience.

So I honor the work of the RFF, as do so many, because of the cumulative transformative effect on the lives of Jews with disabilities.  But, I also honor it, and others like it, for the incalculable value of each life so transformed.  There is more to be done, and I have great confidence that the work will continue, but at this moment, I honor all of the worlds already saved.  Kol hakavod.

Disability, Judaism

Preparing to Launch: How My Wonderful Camp Family Reached Out, Raised Me Up, and Prepared Me to Fly.

“Summer wasn’t complete without hearing his laugh coming over the hill.”  – My friend Meredith, referring to me in a re-post of my “My Launch Pad” blog post.

The above flattering quote typifies the overwhelming and soul enriching response to my post about the launch pad provided to me by my inclusion that summer camp.  I was moved by the reaction of my beloved fellow alumni.

More than that, I remembered anew that inclusion is a function of people more than places, attitudes as much as actions, and feelings as much as realities.  Conversely, exclusion can result from perceiving oneself as unworthy of affection, respect, and inclusion.  I can’t speak of the inclusion of camp, and of how it nurtured my soul, developing me and preparing me to launch, without a discussion of the people.

Camps themselves are just rolling pieces of beautiful land, and camp programs so many ideas on paper, without the people that make it real.  It was in hundreds of thousands of interactions with my fellow campers and staff, the way we engaged, and the way they treated me, and laughed with me, played with me, and occasionally argued with me, that I truly felt myself brought within the community.  Collectively, and individually, each one of them was somebody without whom, to paraphrase Meredith, “summer would not be complete.”

My fellow alumni, my camp friends and family, (of which I was privileged to have my biological family be a part), the thousands of wonderful people that actually reached out to help me become the man that I am today, they are the true architects of inclusion.  If camp was my launch pad, they were my ground crew, my engineers, my fellow astronauts and mission control.

Indulge me, so that I may share a little bit about my interactions with them, and how it would help me to challenge my self-perception, and to make sure that I never excluded myself.  Individually, you will find no greater human beings.  Collectively, you will find no greater group of exemplars of the inclusion that we all want to practice.

An aside: I will only be using first names in these stories.  I have chosen to share my experiences that some might enjoy and others might learn, but, a similar decision would be for each of them to make.  Also, had I a book and not a blog, and a memory like a computer, I would still have trouble recounting all of the wonderful people in my camp life.  This is not even an attempt to do that, but rather to use a few select people to illustrate the incredible collective role of these wonderful human beings in my inclusion experience.  (Special mention to David Friedman and Eve Rudin Kleinman, the individuals at Eisner and Kutz respectively who had overall responsibility for my inclusion.)

The first camp person I remember is Ilana.  We were both camp babies at Eisner camp, and, being similar in age, we were childhood playmates in the days when we were too young for formal programming.  As I look back at my life, she must have been my first able-bodied playmate (my only segregated educational experience was my nursery school, a delightful program for its time at United Cerebral Palsy in Connecticut.)

Three decades, disparate lives, and in her case marriage to another treasured friend of mine, Danny, and children, have long ago pushed our paths apart, and these days I learn about her life from Facebook status updates.  Still, I haven’t forgotten the powerful memory of that first friend, and I haven’t forgotten that, even as an adult, on the rare occasions when we encounter each other, I’m touched by the powerful familiarity that comes with a friendship of such long-standing.  I’m also aware of how rare it was for a person with my level of disability in my generation to have that kind of friendship within able-bodied child, long before the world was beating the drum of inclusion.

Also in those early years, the warm and open camp family helped me to find my voice as a public speaker.  Various official biographical sketches will tell you that I began public speaking at age 4, and it makes for a good publicity point.  The human element that is missing from that discussion is that, in order to give a four-year-old such a platform, to envelop him in comfort, and empower him to share, requires a panoply of special people.  Here, I don’t exactly know who was involved in arranging my opportunity to speak to the whole camp at age 4, apart from my wonderful parents,but I know that, to do it, they had to instill a self confidence that remains to this day.

What’s more, quite apart from those presumably staff decision makers, there were the hundreds of Eisner campers who listened patiently to a piping four-year-old, who asked questions, whose warm interest I remember even now.  One of them, in fact, my friend Jen, still reminds me to this day of the impact of that my words had on her life.  There can be no greater affirmation than that.

As I grew through childhood, other warm campers would add to that sense of affirmation.  While I was still in day camp, (then the program for faculty children not yet of camp age) a group of girls in the youngest unit became my swim buddies.  The long passage of time has dulled my memory of all of the names, but I do remember Courtney and Stephanie among them.

On the one hand, eight-year-old girls everywhere enjoy six-year-olds, sort of like a human doll. Yet, one could easily imagine an experience where I, as the six-year-old it was a little different, was rejected or shunned.  Instead I was embraced (figuratively and literally) and, while I may have developed a bit of an ego problem, I certainly never needed to ponder if I was wanted or loved.

This lesson, learned at camp, became something of a subconscious self-affirmation.  As hard as it is, before you can really push for your own inclusion, it helps to be convinced that people want you there and may be don’t know what they’re missing yet.  This lesson, I learned from my camp family.  (My biological family is also very loving, but it’s hard to translate those lessons into dealing with the wider world.)

This lesson would continue to be reinforced by dozens of fantastic bunkmates throughout the years.  Since I cannot name them all, and I have no meaningful way to choose, I have chosen to name none of them.  Just know that you are all in my heart.

Many such lessons would be learned at the pool.  At the pool was where I would flirt for the first time, lacking some of the physical distance that my wheelchair put between me and others on land.  I won’t name names here, but I am grateful to a long list of young women whose good-natured flirtation made me feel lovable in another way, before I would fall prey in my late teens to the deep insecurities that almost all of us with disabilities have when it comes to body image, an issue about which I have written before.  Here, even the power of camp’s inclusion could not spare me the scourge of self exclusion, but I like to think that it planted seeds as I fight to break free even now.

Also at the pool, I would learn to respect my body as the only one I had, and something for which I needed to care.  I think many of us with physical disabilities tend to think of our bodies as useless at best and liabilities at worst.  We eschew exercise not out of laziness, but because it seems pointless.  I’m grateful then to Wendy. who began to teach me to use my body to swim in the pool, and to Doug, who, over my vociferous objections, made me swim every safe pool day for all of my years at camp, because he knew that my health depended on it.  I’m grateful to Jacob, to Asher, and to Stephanie, who would allow me to continue this important habit when I moved from Eisner to Kutz, with Asher and Jacob even creating an achievement award.  I have all the bad habits of a middle-aged man, but I never lost the appreciation that my body was important and that I could maintain it if I put in the effort.  I was included in being healthy.

I learned at camp that I could be included in anything if it was important enough to me.  I am grateful to Animal, and to Jen, who tried tirelessly, if in vain, to find a way that I could play the guitar when I was young, and to Andy, and Robbie, and Rosalie, each of whom would help me to realize my dreams of leading a song session, even though a guitar would always elude my grasp.  I learned that I could be included in anything, if I was willing to accept that that inclusion might look different than the way that I first envisioned.  The day that I sat next to Andy on the elevated stage in Eisner’s old Chadar Ochel (dining hall) is still one of my happiest memories.

I learned that even my needs could be a source of inclusion, rather than exclusion.  I learned it as my friendships with Eric (now Winter) and Josh deep end as they helped to meet my physical needs at Kutz when my Camp America staffers proved on equal to the task.  I learned it when Billy and Jeff and Franklin and Aaron and Scott and Scott (two different people, you know who you are), and many staff members not named here, took their own roles in my care.  And finally, I learned it, when, as pictured below, my beloved Kutz bunk mates transformed my fear of traveling camp paths alone into an honored role for them as my Secret Service guards.

Outdoor scene featuring 14-year-old Matan sitting in a power wheelchair flanked by for male teenagers, well dressed in dark sunglasses, touching imaginary Secret Service ear pieces. The camp program director can be seen on one side, holding a walkie-talkie with a bright smile. Also pictured, one teenage male not in uniform, And one teenage female, identity unknown

Me and my “Secret Service Bodyguards” URJ Kutz Camp, 1996, Photo Credit: Melanie Ross Levin

And lastly, I learned, oh so painfully, just how my inclusion could impact the lives of others, in ways I might never know. In March 1992, my camp friend, Marc Erenberg was tragically killed at age 13, the victim of the drunk driver.  At three years older than me, Marc was a friend I looked up to, but not really a peer, as his sister, Robin would become.  Had you asked to me in February 1992, I would have been gratified to merely find that he remembered my name.

And yet, I remember vividly, when my father came to me, in the basement of our Connecticut home, and told me that my friend had been killed.  He didn’t stop there, though.  He told me that he had heard from the family, and that, apparently, I had made a significant impact in Marc’s life.  So important did they feel that I was to him, that they were going to support inclusion efforts at camp in his memory.

At the time, I had trouble going beyond the simple tragedy of the bad news.  I was not yet 11, and the death of a friend is a big deal.  As I came to reflect, over the years, though, I was moved and continue to be moved by the idea that my inclusion had so moved another individual on the idea of inclusion that inclusion had become a way to honor his memory.  I only wish that he had lived so we could have seen just what further inclusion he would have inspired.  I learned from this that not only could I be included, but that, regardless of my general feelings on the inspirational nature of people with disabilities, I had an obligation to let my inclusion be a catalyst for more inclusion.

When I say camp was a launch pad, I mean that it gave me the tools to fly.  Without these tools, they could ramp every door in the world, and I would not be included, because I’d be unable to let myself in.  Without learning to see myself as able to connect to those without disabilities.  Without learning to be comfortable in raising my own voice.  Without learning that I was wanted.  Without learning that my body, too, mattered.  Without learning that I could realize my dreams.  Without learning that I could contribute best to this world by fully engaging in it.  Without all of these lessons, I could not have been included in life the way I have.  Without the people mentioned above, and so many many more, I’d never have learned these lessons.

So learn some of them, if you haven’t.  Teach some of them, if you can.  Let my wonderful camp family serve as your exemplars, if you need.  And together, let’s launch everyone into a life of inclusion.

Disability, General, Independant Living, Judaism, Personal Care, Sexuality and Body Image

Finding My Voice: A Look Backward, A Look Forward, and A Request

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I talk a lot.  Loud, verbose, outspoken; these are adjectives that I don’t think anyone would deny me.

And yet, as of May 1 of this year, despite more than two years in public office, more than 15 years of leadership positions, and well over 25 years of public speaking engagements, you would have been hard pressed to find more than the occasional public record of my thoughts and opinions on anything.

It’s not that I didn’t have them.  As a liberal New York Jewish lawyer (at least according to this conservative blogger), I have opinions about just about everything, whether I have any business talking about it notwithstanding.

It is rather that I really didn’t think that anyone would want to listen to what I had to say.  Living in the echo chamber of my liberal, Jewish, disability activist world, I really wasn’t sure that I had anything unique to offer.  Nonetheless, after years of gentle urging, I launched this blog two months ago yesterday, first at www.matankoch.svbtle.com,and then this week migrating over to WordPress, where we are right now if you are reading this.

I have been overwhelmed by the response.  In the two months that we have been live, I have received over 3000 visits, including over 1000 to WordPress this week alone.  The comments, feedback and encouragement, along with the flattering shares of those who push my words to even larger audiences have truly moved my soul.  It’s enough that I encourage other people to take a stab at blogging, if you think you might have something to say.

I have also had the opportunity to find my voice, and share my opinions on topics about which I am passionate.  My three top posts, each of which has had well over 700 views, have each allowed me to speak to an issue that I feel is timely and important.

In “Chutes and Ladders”, I got the chance to explore with you my take on the most critical policy barrier facing employment of people with disabilities.  I was truly gratified by each of you that responded that, having been previously unaware of this pressing issue, you were interested in opportunities to change the paradigm.

In “From Objects of Sympathy to Objects of Desire” I explored with you the evolution in the societal conversation around the sexuality of people with disabilities, a critical component to understanding us as fully fledged human beings.  From feedback in some disability fora where it was reposted, I know that I was lucky enough to give voice to an issue which troubles many of us that is completely hidden from many in the able-bodied world.  Then, spurred by the powerful words of my friend Ariella Barker, Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina, I examined the effect that this distorted conversation has on the body image of people with disabilities, in “It Starts in the Mirror.”

Rounding out the top three, this week I had the opportunity to share the incredible power of my camp experience with you, and the benefits that I think that camp presents to people with disabilities in, “My Launch Pad.”  I have been incredibly moved by the reminiscences and kind words of so many of my camp friends who spoke of the positive impact that my inclusion had on their lives, and I will be following up in the near future with a post focusing on the amazing human element of my camp experience, highlighting some of the thousands of people that made my experience what it is.  Even more encouraging, the post is beginning to circulate among those who work in the world of inclusion, and I would love to see the net result be that more people are afforded the opportunity that I had.

But now we come to the request.  In the two months that this blog has been active, I have written more than 30 articles.  I encourage you to check them all out, if only because many of them were written on issues about which I feel very strongly.  That said, I’m running a little low on inspiration.

I started this blog because other people felt that they had topics on which they wanted to hear my opinions.  So, I’m asking you, my readers, to tell me if there other things that you would like to hear me write about.  I’ve set up an email address, matansblogideas@gmail.com, specifically for that purpose.

Please feel free to send me articles questions or thoughts which you feel could be good potential subjects for this blog.  I may not write posts about them, as I really don’t believe in writing on any topic unless I have something worthwhile to say, but I promise to at least respond telling you that a post is on the way or explaining why I don’t feel qualified to express a particular topic.

I am gratified to have had the opportunity to start some important conversations.  I fully intend to continue.  I gratefully welcome your help and participation in this mission.

Disability, Judaism

My Launch Pad: How the Micro World of Summer Camp Prepared Me for Full Inclusion in Society

“Holy sh**, that’s Matan” – Unknown shmirah (on-duty counselor) late July 1994.

These were the words I heard during the execution phase of a critical step in trying to sneak me across camp, from boys’ camp to girls’ camp on the last night of the first session of Eisner Camp in 1994.

In the 80’s and 90’s, sneaking across camp, or raiding, was a time-honored tradition, especially on the last night.  (I understand that the camp’s current management has curtailed the practice.) I like to think that I was fairly innocent in my adolescence, but there is no question that hormones were a motivating factor.

Despite being as motivated as any other 12-year-old boy, there were some significant complexities in the idea that I would participate.  The first was that sneaking across camp involved, well, sneaking, and I was in a large and very loud power wheelchair.  My friends and I never got a chance to solve the next complexity, the fact that the girls bunks were not ramped, but we had great fun dealing with the first.

It became immediately clear to our 12 and 13-year-old minds that there was no way that I was going to elude detection.  Even the most inept shmirah was not going to miss a large wheelchair barreling down the road.  We knew, however, that they could not range far from their posts.  The plan began to form.

One intrepid veteran, with many successful raids, who could thus afford to be denied one opportunity, would be intentionally caught.  While he was distracting the shmirah, I would go down the road at full speed, getting outside of the danger area before attention could be shifted.  The quote above, blurted out as I zipped down the road, was the result.

Of course, we forgot about the walkie-talkies, and of then rabbinical student now Rabbi Matt Gewirtz who was driving the super shmirah van.  Matt caught up to me about a thousand feet later, and ordered me home.

I began, but as soon as the van was out of sight I resumed my trek across camp.  As I crested the hill into girls’ camp, Matt, who was sort of an older brother figure to me that summer, came up behind me again in the van.  This time, he tailed me in the van all the way home.

This was not my only raiding experience, but it was by far the best story, and it exemplifies what camp was for me.  But let’s back up.

I grew up in small-town Connecticut.  Though my parents were strong proponents of full inclusion for their children with disabilities, I faced the twin practical barriers of access and transportation for nearly everything that I did or wanted to do.  My parents did not own a wheelchair van, and none of my friends’ homes were wheelchair accessible, nor were most of the other social venues for adolescents in our small-town.

At school, the educational and emotional blessing of having the incredible Carol Lemire as my one-on-one was paired with the unfortunate chilling effect of the idea that wherever I was, the watchful eye of an adult was never far behind, limiting constructive mischief opportunities.  I wouldn’t trade what Carol has brought to my life for anything, and I have come to think of her as a second mother, but school was not quite the unfettered laboratory of exploration that it might be for other people.

But, every summer, from infancy through age 18, I was at summer camp, most of those years at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Joseph Eisner Camp Institute for Living Judaism, where my parents were on faculty and where the above story takes place.  (Honorable mention to Camp Hemlocks in Connecticut, Camp Oakhurst in New Jersey, and the URJ Kutz Camp/NFTY Leadership Academy in Warwick New York for rounding out the 18 summers.)

My inclusion at camp was a rough and ready thing.  To put things in historical perspective, the ADA was signed by the first President Bush while I was in my second summer as a camper, and would not apply to any kind of Summer camp until three years later.  (Arguably, the First Amendment means that it still doesn’t apply to Jewish camps, but my focus is on where the understandings of the world were, not legal obligations.)  At the time, I was the only wheelchair user at camp.

Because it was rough and ready, with no blueprint, no past experience, and certainly no specialized services available, my inclusion was just that.  Full inclusion.  I was included in functionally all of the substantive activities available to another camper my age.

I swam in the pool every day.  They would slap a new ramp every summer on an appropriate boy’s cabin for my age group, and I would live there.  When it became clear that scrubbing the sinks was the only cabin cleanup task of which I was physically capable, that unenviable job became mine every day.  Each program, each sport, each song session, the presumption was that I would participate, and the creative college students running everything but their imaginations run free as to how that would work.  And it did.  There is almost no camp experience that I haven’t done.  I have danced at dances, acted in the Camp shows, and even once had my nails painted in a battle of the sexes.  (Let me tell you, I don’t look half bad in bright red nail polish, though it’s not my style choice today.)

But that is only a small part of the value.  If you recall my discussions of home, the biggest challenges to my social inclusion where transportation and access.  Camp, however, was its own little world.  Transportation lost its meaning when we all lived in a 600 acre Village.

As for access, when faced with a finite number of buildings that made up the camp social community, Carl, the wonderful camp maintenance man who had a wife in a wheelchair, built ramps to every camp building.

Even better, my ubiquitous escorts were cool twenty-year old guys who had no responsibility to enforce the rules.  (My most well-known assistant, my still dear friend Martin Smith, even helped me go raiding once.)  Here, my opportunities were the same as everyone else’s.

Then there were the differences in the community, and my human interactions.  My fellow campers lived with me, ate with me, swam and showered with me.  Anyone who has ever been the camp knows the depth of connection that that fosters.  In that depth of connection, it’s amazing how the separating otherness of disability falls away.  It wasn’t Utopia, and we had all the problems of a group of 500 kids 8 to 15 under the supervision of 150 kids 18 to 20, but it was pretty damn good.

It is perhaps no surprise then that it is camp where I had my first kiss, and my first heartbreak.  It is camp where I got an entire childhoods worth of bruises and tumbles, and the little triumphs that tend to follow soon after.  It is camp where I saw my first adult magazine, played my first card game, and broke my first curfew.  And, as described above, it was camp where I got the indescribable experience of raiding.

Since I could hang out with the other kids, camp was also the first place I encountered the Beatles, Billy Joel, and Simon and Garfunkel.  It was the first place I was surrounded by Phish Heads and Dead Heads, and the first place that I got to sing with friends as they jammed on ubiquitous acoustic guitars.  Many who know me now understand that each of these are significant parts of my current identity, but, in the pre-Internet world, I would have not found any of them sitting in my home in New Milford Connecticut.

The difference and social experience was also profound.  I think that I was well liked in my home town growing up, but I was always a little separate, no one knew me that well.  At camp, I was popular.  I had friends, acquaintances, and that loose construct we call “a crowd.”  At camp, I learned the social skills which would serve me well when I got to college and the real world and, for the first time, had year-round experiences with easy access to my peers.  This is, perhaps, a sensation experienced by many summer campers, but that doesn’t change its value to me.

Camp was also my first experience at independent living.  My assistants, especially Martin, were very clear that they were there to help me with my disability needs, but not to direct my life or my choices.  I had counselors for that, like everybody else, and the requisite independence that all campers experience.  So, simultaneously, I got to learn to make my own choices and the important lesson of how to comfortably accept the care of professionals not in your family.  Both of these are critical skills for someone with my needs to learn in order to live independently, and it was in the relatively safe, supportive environment of camp where I got to test these ideas for the first time.

This, then, was camp for me.  Like many Jewish children, I found it a nourishing experience, fostering a lifelong connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.  Beyond that, though, it was the place where I got to develop into a full-fledged human being.  Looking back on my life, I can’t think of a single social developmental milestone which happened for me somewhere other than camp.

This is not to say that camp is a panacea for socially isolated people with disabilities.  It is critical to my success that I grew up there.  My experience would no doubt have been different had I first arrived at camp a teenager that had never been included in a broader social world.  In fact, as a professional, I have encountered less than successful situations where just that was tried.  Further, though somewhat socially isolated, I was always included with my nondisabled peer group for education, and I have no doubt that that gave me tools which helped me to succeed at camp.

That said, for those with the basic tools, I think that camp can be in incredible opportunity to broaden one social development.

A key caution for anyone thinking to pursue this option.  Camp was only successful for me because I was allowed to have the same experiences as any other camper.  This meant that I was not bubble wrapped, but was able to get a few bumps and bruises.  Most importantly, it meant that I was not chaperoned, any more than any other camper.

As I mentioned, my assistants were cool 20- somethings with a clear idea of their role.  Further, when my parents, as camp faculty, were informed of my mischievous deeds, they made it very clear to those conveying the message that they were just happy that I was having the same experience as any other camper, and that if whatever I was doing would not normally necessitate a call home, then they didn’t need to know.  If you make camp as isolated and protective as the larger world, you will have no better results than the larger world.

But, done right, camp can be a launch pad, and for me was perhaps the key launch pad to help me find my current integrated place in the world.


My Eser Experience, a Meditation on Community and Its Power to Make a House a Home

This is just a stub to point you to a guest blog post that I wrote for Eser, an in-home informal Jewish learning project run by Hebrew college and sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. I hosted the downtown Boston group in my home this past Spring, and it showed me how, when strangers become friends, the awkwardness of difference fades away and new places gain treasured memories. Read the full post here.


Profits, Debts and Fresh Starts, A Jewish Take on the Entrenchment of Income Inequality

I recently read an article about an artist named Fried Potatoes, who incinerated $500,000,000 of tuition debt agreements from a corrupt University in Chile, rendering them virtually impossible to enforce.

I do not support arson, and I know that the lender here was a particularly egregious criminal, so I don’t suggest emulating these choices, but I think many can identify with the impulse, even here. As a few Americans gain ever greater wealth, while most struggle under growing debt, we must struggle with the question of what kind of society that creates, and whether that is the kind of place we want to live. If not, what might we do differently?

The best answer that I have found came to me when I was preparing to deliver a D’var Torah (sort of a Jewish homily) at congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline Massachusetts on May 9, 2014. I was asked to speak on the portion of the Torah which was primarily contained in Leviticus Chapter 25, which was the Jewish reading for that week.

Though it would be weeks before I encountered the protest of Fried Potatoes, I was immediately struck by what I perceived to be clear moral guidance on the questions of growing income inequality in our society and of how a just society addresses the basic needs of those who have less.

In the Torah we read, starting at Leviticus 25:10,

“and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.
11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines,
12 for it is a jubilee.” (Leviticus 25: 10-12)

This proclaims the jubilee year, which, under differing interpretations of Jewish law, is either the 49th or 50th year in a cycle. In the jubilee year, we read, all property goes back to the original divine land grants to each Israelite, if in fact it has not already been redeemed for value, which is the clear preference in the Torah. See Leviticus 25: 25-28. Note, this has the effect of turning all property sales into a 50 year maximum purchase of the yield of real property, the actual term being from date of purchase to date of jubilee.

The same chapter of Leviticus introduces the concept of the 7 year fellow cycle. In Deuteronomy’s restatement of Jewish law, we read

1 Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.
2 This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord. …
4 There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion
5 if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. . .
7 If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. . . ,
9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.
10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” Deut. 15:1-10 (excerpted)

The implications of this passage are astonishing. In the biblical world, every 7 years there was an automatic bankruptcy, a wiping clean of debt, and every 50 years, everyone reverted to their baseline stake of real property, divinely granted.

Now, this system is in no way anti-capitalist. The very fact that there is a system of redemption payments in land transfers makes clear that you can keep profits from anything that you sell. Further, the Bible exempted townhomes from reversion. The idea was not to prohibit elevating one’s status by amassing significant wealth, but rather a limit as to how far one could fall. No crushing decades of debt, and, every generation a mandatory reversion, granting each family the basic means of subsistence, a baseline from which to improve their condition.

The actual system almost certainly did not work. Even the Bible has to expressly prohibit the freezing of credit in the 7th year and, as early as Rabbi Hillel, (A Rabbi living in the first century CE), the rabbis were creating nondischargeable debts that worked around the text, and Yehuda Hanasi (the codifier of the Mishna in the 3rd century CE) created rabbinic limitations around the land rules. Certainly, both Maimonides and Nachmanides spend some time trying to work out ways that the land will not revert.

This is almost irrelevant, however. We do not live in Israel on biblical land grants, and so we would not be following many of these rules anyway.

What is important is that, notwithstanding efforts to support a functioning economic system, the rabbis never departed from the values inherent in the systems. From the Talmud, through Maimonides, well into key Jewish thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries, notwithstanding exceptions and vehicles for legally nondischargeable debt, we learn that the presumption of automatic bankruptcy was still operational.

How does this guide us today? I think that it is extraordinarily valuable to envision a capitalism where everyone retains the basic right of subsistence, where profits are tolerated but crushing debt loads are not. Simple things like an economic safety net that works, and a bankruptcy system that retains the homestead exception while completely dispensing with the notion of nondischargeable debt. We do not have farmlands to give people, but we, like the Jews of old, can make sure that no one falls too far into destitution. Let’s find ways to avoid crushing people under the weight of debt, so that they will not be moved to theft and arson. Let’s create a just society for all.

Disability, Employment, Judaism

Meaningful Employment for People with Disabilities: Let’s Start Making It Happen Now

Today, I have the honor of being the featured writer on Zeh Lezeh, a blog of the Ruderman Family Foundation. For those who do not know, the Ruderman Family Foundation is a fantastic organization based in Boston and in Israel. Their mission statement, in their own words, is that,

Guided by our Jewish values, we support effective programs, innovative partnerships and a dynamic approach to philanthropy in our core areas of interest: advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community; fostering a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israeli leaders; and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide.”

I can personally attest to their impact as I continue to find their philanthropy at the heart of a vast number of initiatives in the Jewish world designed to improve inclusion of people with disabilities.

Today’s honor reminded me of the first time I had the honor of being their featured writer, on January 2, 2012. I wrote a pitch entitled Full Employment for People with Disabilities: If Not Now, When? It is now two years later, and I feel that my call to action remains, unfortunately, as timely as ever. Therefore, I reproduce the following post here, and challenge my readers to think about how they could implement it.

Guest Blogger Matan Koch, Associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel, LLP and Member of The National Council On Disability

The below represents the author’s personal views, and not those of the National Council on Disability.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam teaches that, when dealing with tzedakah, or righteousness, “the greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by . . . finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs [tzedakah] no longer.” Archaic language notwithstanding, this simple fundamental truth guides us today. Read properly it should inform and motivate efforts to employ people with disabilities, to lessen or to replace their dependence on lesser forms of tzedakah like Medicare, Medicaid, SSI and community supports, and set them up for long-term meaningful independence.

This is nothing new to most people, but the implications of such a focus might be. We read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 11:1, “Send forth your bread upon the waters; for after many days you will find it.” The rabbis explain this directive to mean that we, the doers and givers of tzedakah, benefit.

American businesses are just beginning to understand the benefits of employing people with disabilities. They are learning that it provides access to a separate and often overlooked talent pool. For example, I am a Harvard Law school graduate. Harvard Law school graduates are in high demand, and it is for this reason that I represent an appealing recruit for many businesses. Those businesses will work hard to accommodate me in order to access that talent. These talents, both those that are evident on resumes and those which are only discovered throughout the course of work, present significant benefits to employers.

Businesses are also learning that hiring employees with disabilities may allow the employer to expand in or even dominate the consumer segment with disabilities. To build from the words of the Rambam, strengthening the name of our brethren with disabilities strengthens us and our businesses. As we seek to emulate this highest form of tzedakah, we build independence, but also stand to reap tremendous benefits. That is a win-win, so, I ask “If not now, when?”

But, even if we agree that this is a win-win scenario, how do we get there?

We learn from Pirkei Avot that “Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” Simply, we each have our own special contribution to make to the critical work of tikkun olam. The same idea holds true for a business.

A successful employer would start by identifying needs within his or her organization, and continue by looking among jobseekers with disabilities to find outstanding candidates who could meet those needs. Conversely, people with disabilities seeking jobs need to focus on the skills and abilities that they bring to the table, just as would any other job seeker. Their path to employment involves education and perhaps vocational rehabilitation to hone and highlight these abilities, raising their appeal to employers.

A match made focusing upon the need of an employer and the abilities that the employee brings to bear is a recipe for success. Accommodations in this circumstance become a collective undertaking to best utilize the employees abilities to meet the need for which they were hired.

The law, always intended to be a floor rather than a ceiling for accommodation, drops away in importance as partners join together to find the employee his or her “place in the sun” so that both parties benefit. The employee benefits from the job at which he or she will succeed. The employer benefits from a well-matched worker who, trends show, is likely to stay with the organization longer than his or her able-bodied counterpart, and potentially provides help in accessing the market of people with disabilities. All because each party understood the place of the other.

Tradition teaches us what to do and how to do it, so I ask again, in the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”

Disability, Judaism

Judaism and Disability 4 of 4: Halachic Living with a Disability

From roughly spring of 2001 until roughly the spring of 2002, I researched and wrote as part of my baccalaureate degree at Yale University a paper entitled Judaism and Disability. It was quintessentially a work of undergraduate scholarship, building heavily on the work of Judith Abrams, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, and what few other scholarly articles were available on the topic at the time. In the years that followed, I have spoken numerous times on the subject, usually to synagogue audiences, tailored to give them an ethical and halachic framework on which to make disability related decisions as Jews and Jewish organizations. The more times that I have given the talk, the more I have come to realize that, while scholarly treatments of this subject exist, there is a dearth of any type of written material explaining the sources and the perspectives and the practical points of view to the interested Jewish layman. These four posts are the key points in that work, largely unmodified from my undergraduate submission:

Modern note: when I originally wrote this it was heavily footnoted to the various rabbinic and halachic sources from which I gleaned the rules. I was unable to reproduce those footnotes for the blog, but please write me if you are looking for sources, and remember that none of these answers are mine.

We will now move on to a discussion about those rulings that specifically relate to people with orthopedic disabilities. The most significant set deal with the prohibitions resulting from the Sabbath. The most general rulings are perhaps those to do with movement. A person who cannot walk without assistance may use a walker, wheelchair or crutches in a public domain because these are considered body parts for the person as long as the person cannot walk without them. Braces are considered articles of clothing and are permitted. Artificial limbs are considered parts of the body. Unfortunately, electric wheelchairs are prohibited for public use because even if they are activated by a non-Jew the perception may be that the Jew in the wheelchair activated it. Interestingly, as of 1991 Israeli engineers were attempting to create a switch that would make power chair use permissible. This does tend to make one wonder how a wheelchair user who is not able to self propel a manual chair is supposed to lead that as meaningful as possible Jewish life. One loophole offered now, which will be more fully explored in the section relating to carrying on Shabbat, is that a non-Jew may be asked to push a wheelchair if the disabled person has significant distress at not going to synagogue. I ask the reader to make note of the sensitivity to mental anguish as it will figure prominently in later discussion.

The wheelchair as a body part enjoys an unusual position in Jewish law. A person in a wheelchair may carry a talit in the back pouch of the wheelchair because the pouch is considered a subsidiary to the wheelchair, and the wheelchair does not know better. In this unusual ruling, the wheelchair is in some ways given its own volition, as the comparison made is that of a small child carrying a rock. As we shall see in our in-depth discussion of the Shabbat laws, such legal fictions are no stranger to Jewish legal reasoning. Other wheelchair rulings are more readily apparent. A wheelchair user, or anyone who cannot stand, may say the Amidah, customarily said standing, from his or her chair. A chair user may also sit shiva from a wheelchair instead of a stool.

Not all rulings are this permissive, however. Driving to synagogue on Shabbat is prohibited even if there is no other option. Also, on Shabbat, a disabled person may not use an elevator or an automatic door unless taking advantage of the usage of such by a non-Jew. While at first glance, this may seem harsh, insensitive, and unfair, it is important to look at these rulings within the context of the rulings that we have already seen and the tradition from which they come. Simply put, Jewish tradition is legalistic tradition. Jewish laws are law, not to be trifled with for convenience. We have seen over and over again that modern halachic authorities want to accommodate people with disabilities. In the prior paragraph, we have even observed the creation of the convenient legal fiction to allow the carrying of talit for chair users on Shabbat. It would seem likely therefore that these prohibitions are simply things that the Rabbinic authorities could not legally circumvent or accommodate. Some might argue that the law is not perfect, others would argue that the law is perfect but we don’t understand it yet.

An interesting last piece that I feel should be tacked on to our discussion of orthopedic disabilities is a small section where Rabbis have actually a modified ritual because of understanding the specific circumstances of a disability. First, they have ruled that we have the ruling that, a right handed man should don tefillin on the left arm even if it is atrophied or paralyzed, if the arm is missing the person should don tefillin on the right arm. Then, we have the other seemingly isolated ruling that a disabled person should say the bathroom blessings after first covering catheters or collestomy bags. Intrinsically, these rulings are sufficiently obscure that they are outside of the scope of this paper. Yet, the fact that Rabbinic thought and effort were put into these specific rulings, and they were in fact published, reinforces the message that Judaism wishes to allow all Jews to make their lives as Jewish is possible, though their disability may appear to stand in the way.


The first rulings in the guidelines for the deaf are very similar to the first ruling in those for people with orthopedic disabilities. That being because they relate to what in the disability field would be considered adaptive equipment. A hearing impaired person may wear a hearing aide because it is considered an article of clothing but may not adjust the volume. One may not carry it in one’s pocket. A spare battery could be designed as an article of clothing. A microphone may be used to help a hearing impaired person hear the torah on weekdays but a microphone may never be used on yom tov or the Sabbath. I think that the reasons for these were fairly well explained in the last section. The next few rulings are what we would call reasonable accommodations, changes to an activity such that a person with disabilities can still do it, but that retain a sufficient resemblance to the original activity. Deaf people may fulfill the mitzvahs of hearing torah and meggillah by reading them to themselves. Also, deaf people may dispense with the reading of the marriage contract or may use sign language.

Strangely enough, after this spate of permissive rulings, the Rosner and Tendler article gives a very terse statement that a deaf mute is exempt from all the commandments. The first thought that comes to mind on that is the Talmudic ruling to that effect, the possible explanations for which are discussed earlier in the paper. In examining the applicability of this ruling to today, it is beneficial to examine a quote by Rabbi J. David Bleich from his book Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Volume 2. On the source sheet from the Orthodox Caucus, it quotes the following from page 375 of his book.
In light of the degree of education attained even by true deaf mutes in contemporary society, it is doubtful that they are considered examples of heresh described in rabbinic references. Hence they should be encouraged to, and indeed required to participate fully in Jewish religious life, including performance of all ritual obligations as well as in Torah study.
By this light, the previous ruling, while correct in everything that it said was to be applied to a category of people that existed in rabbinic times and does not exist now. The Rabbinic cheresh was unreachable, today’s deaf mute is not. As society is now able to move away from blanket exclusion of the deaf, so is Judaism.

The first ruling that we will discuss for blind people relates to Shabbat and illustrates the particular tension generated by a disability for which most modern accommodations are technological. That ruling is that a blind person may not listen to tape or radio on the Sabbath. This is immediately followed with the qualification that visiting that person to provide them with stimulation is a specially meritorious mitzvah. Again, I think this is emblematic of the tension between the highly legalistic religion and a strong desire to provide compassion.

The next set of rulings that we will discuss have to do with a blind person’s personal obligations. I will list them first, for I feel that the prevailing theme will be self-evident. A blind person is required to say the blessings over the new moon. It is preferable for others to say the Channukah menorah blessing for them. A family member should perform the search for chametz before Passover. Further, a blind person must light Sabbath candles if there is no danger to the person or anyone else. This says that you do not have to see something, be it the new moon or the Shabbat candles in order to appreciate and bless them. Yet, you are free from those mitzvot that you could not possibly perform, while still being valued enough to merit their performance on your behalf.

Now we will move in to the reasonable accommodation phase of the laws for people with visual impairments. Firstly, a blind person may have contact with his wife before she goes to the mikveh if it is for her to provide him assistance. Also a blind person may be accompanied by his or her guide dog into a synagogue. These rulings indicate to us that certain taboos, especially those relating to ritual purity can be waived in order to allow for a accommodation of disability. By allowing the assistance to trump the restrictions, one labels them a mitzvah, as these are the only kind of actions that can at times transcend prohibitions. One accommodation offered is that blind people may pray from memory. They are not, however, exempted from any of the carrying restrictions in order to carry large print or special edition (Braille or other) books. At first glance, this may seem an unjust prohibition. Yet, it is quite easy to acquire copies of such books for a synagogue, assuming that the person can use them. Clearly, if they cannot, it presents the reason for the lifting of the prohibition on memorization. If they can, why do they need any more freedom than any other Jew? It would seem that here Judaism walks the fine line between a reasonable accommodation and special treatment. It also seems that they do so quite well.

The last two rulings relate to partially sighted people. Simply, a partially sighted person may read Torah and lead prayer, and a partially sighted person may serve as a legal witness. Both of these rulings affirmed that Jewish citizenship is based upon capacity and not some mistaken idea of the ideal.

The Shabbat Laws
I already mentioned in the introduction to this section the compelling reasons for an in-depth discussion of the Shabbat laws. I will not reiterate that now, but stop only to remind the reader that we will start with a discussion of medical treatment, move to a discussion of technology on Shabbat, and finish with a discussion of the laws of carrying people.

Jewish law contains within it an imperative to heal. Life is a precious gift from God, as is the ability to save life. A doctor that does not practice his art is likened to a murderer. Yet, refuah, healing was not permitted on the Sabbath. The original prohibition against healing on Shabbat was in case herbs should be ground to make medicine. Grinding is prohibited on Shabbat. This ruling has been much debated in modern times, when people do not grind their own medicine, nor do doctors prepare medicine on the spot. The prevailing idea is not for abolishment, since in some places people do still prepare their own medicine, but rather that this fact should engender leniency. Leniency aside this remains the main concern to this day. There is, however, one other significant concern. Most of modern medicine requires the use of electronic equipment. While specific discussion of these laws will be held until further section, suffice it to say that this is customarily prohibited on Shabbat. The values used to address these prohibitions are extremely germane to our discussion. Not only is medical treatment itself a prime issue for disability, but the issues of suffering, anguish, and pain are also applicable.

The priorities of violation and healing on Shabbat are pretty straightforward. All Shabbat and most ritual prohibitions can be waived in the preservation of life, pikuach nefesh. Still, medical treatment should be done in the least transgressive way possible. For instance, it is permissible to control diabetes with insulin on Shabbat, but only if dietary control is not a viable alternative. For even serious illness, any prohibitions can be waived to provide the treatment needed. For general illness, wherein one is infectious, in great pain, or bedridden, but a threat to life is not present, one may perform rabbinically prohibited activities shinui or instruct a non-Jew to perform even a biblically prohibited task. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein considers impairment of function due to medical condition to be the same as being bedridden.

An act done shinui or kilachar yad, as with the other hand or different, constitutes a kind of rabbinic prohibition that can be violated to alleviate pain or to prevent great financial loss. Usually, performing an act shinui should be somewhat more difficult or complicated than performing the act in a standard fashion. An example might be kicking an automatic touch plate rather than pressing the button or tearing something with a full body movement rather than by jerking your hand. Rabbinic prohibitions are actions that the Bible does not prohibit, but for reasons such as a similarity to a biblically prohibited act or the potential to lead to a biblically prohibited act. These prohibitions are still binding, but it will become clear as we move through various halachic rulings that they are not given the same weight as biblical prohibitions.

Wherein there is risk to a specific body part, one may do tasks which are rabbinically prohibited without doing them shinui. If there is thought that this may become life-threatening, then one may do even biblically prohibited tasks. With illness in a specific body part, but no great pain and no threat, one may only do rabbinically prohibited tasks through a non Jew.

So far, these rules seem eminently pragmatic. Danger is identified, indexed, and treated. Interestingly, however, Jewish law seems to have made the jump to understanding the significance of psychology in ways the medical profession has yet to go. Prohibitions against various activities can be bent, especially rabbinic ones, if something needs to be done to treat mental anguish related to medical condition, even if the doctor thinks such measures are unnecessary. Many rabbis will permit rabbinic transgressions even when the anguish is not directly related to the malady at hand. A truly startling expression of this is in the fact that one is allowed to light a light for woman in labor to ease her mind. This is clearly done to relieve psychological anguish, as it can even be done for a blind woman.

The medical ethics of Shabbat are therefore quite straightforward. Most interesting for this analysis is not the varying categories of illnesses, but rather, the clever methods for circumventing prohibition and, most importantly, the recognition of psychological anguish as sufficient grounds for the violation of a rabbinic prohibition, certainly as matched with other legalisms.


Continuing on, we move to a discussion that at first glance has very little relevance to our topic, except perhaps with regard to elevators and other adaptive equipment. Indeed, later in this section we will discuss elevators at length. This lengthier discussion of electronics, taken mostly from one article, is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it is to examine the lengths to which modern rabbis will go to allow Jews to enjoy the conveniences of modern technology on the Sabbath so that the reader will be better able to appreciate that the extensive lengths gone to in order to justify carrying people with disabilities that we will see later can be better understood. For instance, we know that kilachar yad can be used to perform a rabbinically prohibited act to allow one to avoid a biblically prohibited act. What is interesting is that potential situations recommended in this technology article include unplugging a refrigerator kilachar yad so that the light will not go on when you open it. While I suppose that this could be to prevent one from starving, to me it smacks of simple convenience. This is a more lenient standard than great pain or anguish.

The overarching issue with regard to electronic devices is very simple. Completing a circuit is work such as at least one of the prohibited categories on Shabbat. Also, anything incandescent is considered to be the same as kindling fire. As a general removal of all electronic devices would represent a significant inconvenience for the modern Jew, legal loopholes have been developed, some of which we will explore now. I offer this caveat, however. As my concern is the law and not the technology, I will often outline the loophole without giving specific examples in electronics.

The first legalism offered is the following. Halachah rules that it is okay to do a permitted action on the Sabbath even if that permitted action could possibly cause a biblically prohibited action. This is called a davar she’eino mitkaven, an unintended act. The Talmud prohibits however that this idea be taken to an absurd extreme by forbidding an action that will definitely lead to a prohibited action. There is some question as to whether or not this only applies to secondary consequences beneficial to the doer of the original action. If the benefit of the secondary action is not to the doer and is therefore clearly unintentional, it is a rabbinic prohibition. A poor example of this might include passing through an elevator door and triggering its sensor not at a time when it is pointless, but rather just as the timer was about to run out, thus keeping it open unintentionally. As an interesting addition to this, it seems that in Jewish law, ignorance is a defense, as it were. An unintentional act is permitted. Therefore, a secondary prohibited act of a permitted act is not prohibited if the doer of the primary act was unaware that the prohibited secondary act would occur.

Another category of leniency in prohibition of labor on Shabbat is one where the benefit derived is not the purpose of the action with regard to the mishkan, called malacha she’eino tzericha legufa, a hole dug for the dirt if you will, rather than the whole. The mishkan was the sight of ancient Jewish worship and is often translated Tabernacle. One example of work where the purpose differed would be turning off lights to gain darkness, since the extinguishing of flame in the mishkan was to gain the black ash. This class of prohibition could only be violated to serve the public safety, not to prevent significant financial loss as in the case of other rabbinic prohibitions. It is quite possible, however, that again significant pain or mental anguish would allow this class as well.

The final class of prohibitions discussed in this article was a grama. A grama is an indirectly caused action. This is rabbinically prohibited except in cases of potential great financial loss or likely comparable moment. An example given is that of putting barrels of water in front of a fire so that they will burn, explode, and extinguish the fire. A common example of this is a thermostat operated appliance, permissible on Shabbat. Latent circuit devices use this principle to be permitted, such as a grama telephone, because rather than completing a circuit one simply removes the impediment to a circuit. This category is particularly significant to our discussion because the wheelchair in development discussed earlier in the paper runs on the grama principle. The chair would have a latent current running at all times.

Now, we will discuss the adaptive technology that is perhaps the most ubiquitous and one of the most useful for people with mobility impairments, heart problems, and numerous other issues, the elevator. I cannot critique the halachah of elevators because each of the rabbis quoted has a greater understanding of the engineering than I. Rather, I will reproduce it here. The halachah of elevators is complicated, and the debate seems to rage over several issues. Rabbi Yitzchak Weisz forbids riding in even an automatic elevator because the presence of even an extra passenger causes the motor to draw more current. Rabbi Yaakov Breisch rules that just as the Talmud prohibits one from being transported in a chair carried by others and this teaches not to ride in a trolley or on a subway, so it teaches not to ride in elevator, as he feels there is no distinction between vertical and horizontal travel. Rabbi Yosef Henkin and Rabbi Yehuda Unterman rule that since the elevator and not the person is doing the work, an automatic elevator is okay. Rabbi Breisch’s ruling does not appear to have any normative authority. After this, things get even more complicated. Rabbi Halperin rules that one may ride in an ascending but not descending elevator, as an ascending elevator causes the motor to draw more current, which he feels is halachically permissible. The descending elevator has two problems. One, a standard descending elevator uses the weight of its passengers to descend, and the halachah rules that one is responsible for actions caused by one’s weight trade. Two, a descending elevator generates current that is fed back into the buildings power grid. Rabbi Halperin is working on a special elevator without this problem. It should be noted, however, that the question of weight responsibility is disputed, and most authorities will allow the riding in an automatic elevator.

Moving away from these technicalities, we come to rulings most specifically relevant to people with disabilities. This is a group for whom the elevator is the only option, a group who needs to find out how to use it. One is permitted, according to some rabbinic authorities, to ride in an elevator operated by a Gentile provided that that Gentile was not operating the elevator on the Jew’s behalf. People with disabilities, however, have an even better option. For an even mildly sick person, or to facilitate performance a mitzvah, one may ask a Gentile to operate the elevator.

Carrying is one of the thirty-nine categories of work biblically prohibited on Shabbat. It is important to note that pushing a wheelchair is considered carrying. The various loopholes that may allow this are what we will explore here. One may carry a human being who is potentially able to carry themselves even if they’re not doing so at this time, and be subject to only a rabbinnic prohibition. The minimal qualification to say that one is able to carry one’s self (chai nosei et atzmo) is that one can walk with help. If one is too sick to walk, is tied up, or is never able to walk, then they’re no longer considered chai nosei et atzmo.

By now, the reader should be aware that when a rabbi reduces something to a rabbinic prohibition, he is looking for a way to make the activity permissible. For carrying, they create a special rationale above and beyond what is normally necessary to violate rabbinic prohibition. In order to violate the rabbinnic prohibition one must do so shvut d’shvut, in essence create a situation where one is doing a rabbinnic prohibition through a method which would itself change a biblical prohibition into a rabbinnic prohibition. In essence, this can only be done in time of urgent need. This can include great pain, including emotional pain, potential great financial loss, and desire to fulfill a mitzvah, such as visiting the sick or going to services.

The next question is how to create this situation of a double rabbinic prohibition, understanding that the carrying chai nosei et atzmo is the first rabbinic prohibition. Possible methods include telling a Gentile to do the carrying, pachot pachot me’dalet amot, or shenayim she’osu. Pachot pachot me’dalet amot is the process of circumventing the limitation of carrying no more than 4 amot into public domain. The method, rabbinically prohibited, is to carry the person or object in stages of three amot. In order to get between a public and private domain one would stop in the middle of the transition point and start again which is never in fact carrying the whole person from the two domains. These methods, combined with chai nosei et atzmo, constitute a shvut d’shvut. When two people perform an act which could clearly be performed by one person is called shenayim she’osu, and this takes any biblically prohibited act and changes are to a rabbinic prohibition.

Clearly, our most pressing interest is how this can be applied to people with disabilities. In addition to questions such as carrying into a house for an oneg, shvut d’shvut can be used to push someone in a manual wheelchair for the reasons listed above. Remember that a wheelchair user is not chai nosei et atzmo, and therefore one must create the shvut d’shvut in its entirety. Some examples might be to have a Gentile pushing the wheelchair pachot pachot me’dalet amot, or for Jews to push the chair shenayim she’osu and pachot pachot me’dalet amot.

There is one more extremely ambiguous case, the Carmelit. A Carmelit is a rabbinically designated public space such as a “bungalow colony, an open field, a village street, or a body of water.” Originally, such spaces did not qualify as public areas, but they were a gray area that could easily lead to or have been mistaken for a public area. Furthermore, they weren’t private domains and needed some classification. Some consider that carrying one who is chai nosei et atzmo in a Carmelit is permitted because it is gezeira l’gezeira, a double precaution. Double precautionary measures automatically cancel each other out, with more finality than a shvut d’shvut. Others do not consider a Carmelit gezeira, though even they recognize this as an automatic shvut d’shvut.

The overriding idea is that rabbis’ go to incredible lengths to attempt to make the pushing of wheelchairs permissible. The only real place worth expressing any discontent with their attempts is that they do not see the extent of the potential mental anguish that exclusion would create. I am willing to argue that the psychological need for inclusion rates at least as high as the significant pain medical prohibition. Thus, I feel that pushing a wheelchair should not be a shvut d’shvut question, but rather one of creating only one rabbinic prohibition. This may seem unimportant and legalistic to some, but in practicality it has to things going for it. One, it recognizes the sheer weight that the psyche places on inclusion. Number two, it allows Jews to push the chair pachot pachot me’dalet amot, shinui, or in a Carmelit. To close this portion of the discussion, it is important to note that an eruv trumps these questions for a manual chair.