After Shabbat next weekend, synagogues everywhere will conduct Selichot, the penitential prayer services. We will acknowledge God's sovereignty, confess our shortcomings yearn to be close to our Creator -- and we wil recite the "Shema Kolenu" prayer.
The prayer directs God's attention to a particular stage in our life cycle: "Do not cast us aside at the time of old age, When our strength ebbs, do not abandon us."
Many people who are entering old age look back on a life in which they could freely choose how to express their Judaism, whether that was tzedakah, socializing with friends, adult education, synagogue worship or cultural events. They begin to lose those powers, and others.
Some of them strugggle to see, become hard of hearing, find walking to be difficult or impossible, or confront chronic health conditions. They may have trouble remembering and concentrating. It's harder for them to leave their homes.
The situation is complicated if, embarrassed, they try to cover up having a disability. They come from a place of inclusion and too often arrive at a place of exclusion.
Seniors acquiring disabilities don't inspire the warm feelings we experience when a "verbal girl" and a "nonverbal girl" share a smile. We may feel uncomfortable in their presence, confronted with the possibility that we too may experience age-related disabilities.
Meeting the "Shema Kolenu" Challenge
Our pleas to God not to abandon us in old age should motivate us not to abandon the aging individuals among us who are confronting communications, transportation, architectural and attitudinal barriers as they seek companionship and participation in Jewish settings. We can make simple accommodations that need not strain the budget of an agency or synagogue, providing literature in large print, assistive listening devices and portable ramps whenever possible. Events should be held in accessible settings. If a group hires a bus to attend a rally or enjoy a day at the theater, arrange for the bus to be wheelchair accessible.
"Teach us how to count our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom." (Psalm 90.) When planning to build or modify a home or building housing a synagogue or community agency, it is worthwhile to keep in mind the accommodations which young energetic people may need in thirty or forty years. (The book "The Accessible Home," by the architect Deborah Pierce, contains hundreds of helpful suggestions.
How do you interact with a friend who can no longer make eye contact with you, who must strain to hear what you are saying, who lacks the stamina for a golf game, or sometimes can't conduct a conversation? Those of us living with a disability know well that some people perceive the disability as a central defining characteristic. Those who meet us may be silent, or wonder "what's safe to discuss."
The answer is straightforward: interact with us the way you would interact with anybody else. Your older friend who has acquired a disability is still your friend, and wants to be treated like a friend.
If we do not abandon our seniors when they acquire a disability, our Shema Kolenu prayer will be truly sincere and meaningful.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons --boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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