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Outside of Congregation Etz Chaim synagogue with an American flag and Israeli flag and plants and trees

Building an Inclusive Sanctuary for All People: by Rabbi Daniel Dorsch

At the beginning of the holiday season, Rabbi Daniel Dorsch delivered a sermon from his brand new, inclusive sanctuary at Congregation Etz Chaim. Read his entire sermon, republished with his permission, below.

I met Anna (not her real name) for the first time when I was a chaplain at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. I was a rabbinical student at 25, and she was a 21 year old college student, sucking a lolly pop lying in bed, and a patient at the hospital.

Not an uncommon question for an awkward, new chaplain, I sat down in her room next to her bed, and asked what brought her there. That’s when Anna began her story by showing me that she didn’t have any legs. And she told me she was in the hospital because someone had died and left her all of their organs for a multiple organ transplant, which she desperately needed to live. The lolly pop it turned out, was not for fun; it was medicine to help improve her chances of the transplant taking.

I have to say that as a fresh off the boat chaplain visiting one of my first few patients, I was pretty stunned. I was not expecting to encounter someone so different. And I really didn’t know what to say.

But you see, Anna, who attended a local Catholic university –wouldn’t allow me to be stunned. Catholics are much better than Jews in hospitals; Catholics are used to seeing their priest every day for mass, Jews always assume when the rabbi is coming it’s to read them their last rites. And so she immediately started asking questions about me. And soon after I became more comfortable, I started asking questions about her. Anna and I talked about what classes we were taking at school. We talked about what music we liked and didn’t. Just like anyone else. And so after about an hour, when it seemed like our visit was coming to an end, relieved the visit hadn’t been a total disaster, I asked Anna what any good chaplain would: If she wanted to pray with me. And so we held hands and prayed.

I don’t remember what Anna said. But that moment of prayer will stand with me as one of the most powerful moments of prayer that I’ve ever encountered in my life. Because that was the moment that my normative Jewish bubble in which I lived was popped: When I stopped being so afraid of difference. And that I realized that people of all abilities that I thought were different than me were really the same as I was.

Often as a rabbi I stand up here on the bimah and talk about what I say are my favorite parts or favorite mitzvahs in the Torah. You probably don’t believe me anymore because I tell you every week after week that this part of the Torah is my favorite part of the Torah.

Well today, I want to talk about this week’s parasha, and specifically about my least favorite moment in the Torah. I know it’s heresy for a rabbi not to like a part of the Torah, but it happens. It is the moment where God commands to Moshe that a kohen, if having a disability, a physical defect, cannot serve as a leader in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Chazal our sages of blessed memory, perhaps feeling uncomfortable themselves about this attitude toward people of all abilities are quick to jump on this. They say it doesn’t have to do with the defect generally, but that it is a defect that would only make him he was incapable of siring children, which is very important for kohanim who need to continue the family line.

Perhaps, but I think that I would, as a modern rabbi, prefer to read this passage honestly. And that is that I believe that this passage is here, not for that reason, but because there was a misunderstanding during the time of what it meant to be a person of all abilities.

Halacha, Jewish law, tells us that people who are blind, deaf, or dumb, three categories in Jewish law are all excluded from participating fully in the performance of mitzvot. For example, you cannot fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar if you are deaf, because you cannot hear the shofar. Or you can’t read from the Torah if you are blind, because you cannot see the Torah.

And I get it. I get where this sentiment comes from. Some of it, in the year 200 of the Common Era, might have made sense based on what they knew and the technology available.

But we are in the twenty first century. With Anna. Who with no legs, organs that were nearly shot offered up one of the most beautiful, heartfelt moment of prayers that I ever experienced. Just as I suspect a Kohen with a physical defect in that era could have opened up a beautiful prayer or offered an excellent korban. Just as we know that because someone is legally blind today doesn’t mean they can’t in a manner of speaking read from the Torah. Just as someone deaf could by feeling the vibrations fulfill the mitzvah and say the blessing over the hearing of the Shofar.

Today is an exciting day in the history of Congregation Etz Chaim. And I know that at a later date we will have a more formal dedication. There will be lots of yaasher koachs. Thanks yous. Speeches, champagne. All of the well-deserved whistle stops.

But I would be remiss if I did recognize how very important today really is. Because after nearly 45 years, we should be proud that Etz Chaim finally has a new sanctuary accessible to people of all abilities. One that our #Renewal2020 campaign has called both “pretty and purposeful.”

Those of you who come here from time to time can see the pretty. The woodwork is beautiful. The carpeting brand new. The pews reupholstered. But there is also a lot that is purposeful here this morning. A purpose that can be summed up by one word: inclusion.

Since my arrival here at Etz Chaim three years ago, we have been learning together through our inclusion committee, and a well-responded congregational survey what it means to be an inclusive synagogue. And this is no easy feat for a conservative synagogue with our high halachic standards. And because our branding, when it comes to inclusion in the Jewish world conservative Jews are often criticized by our friends to the right and the left of us who argue that we are too much or not enough inclusive.

Yet Etz Chaim is not just any conservative synagogue. We are a southern, menschy, thoughtful, purposeful, community. And if you take a look at our sanctuary what you will precisely see, or not see deliberately see by design, are the ways in which we have now made an important statement that this sanctuary a place for people of all abilities. Ki Veiti Tefilla Yikare Lechol HaAmim, “a place for all peoples to come.” Our lower bimah is now fully accessible to those with mobility challenges, so that all may be called to an aliyah at the Torah. Our lighting is vastly improved, enabling those with visual difficulties to be able to better see prayer books and to follow along with our service. And our state of the art speakers and hearing loop with t-coil technology allow those with t-coil technology in their hearing aids to better feel like they are a part of what is happening in this community.

This sanctuary is an important step toward recognizing that people like Anna, and others are a vital part of what we do in this space. It is a step toward being a congregation that no longer sees difference as an obstacle, or as an awkward moment before having a meaningful conversation. We will be a community that sees difference as a blessing, and an opportunity for engagement with our tradition.

I can think of no better way to celebrate a new bat mitzvah, with a new generation, in our new sanctuary, with this new vision and this new message. We are a Hebrew loving, egg salad eating, serious davening, intentional community. And now that message is accessible to Anna, and to all who, different or similar, who would like to be a part of it.

In our Jewish Disability Perspectives newsletter, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Jewish Disability Perspectives contribution are those of the guest contributor. 

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email [email protected]

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