The Child Who Can’t Ask

Just to have a rhetorical pivot point, I’ll rely on the trope that comes up in so much Jewish literature about individuals with special needs: we have to address Judaism to those who don’t yet know how to ask.

I know, I know, it’s hackneyed by now to keep going back to the four children of the Passover Seder. I did it anyway. But I do so with a particular point I want to make–namely, that liberal Judaism is far too verbal. It’s easy to see how this happened. Even the most liberal forms of Jewish life developed from a very text-centered culture. Let’s not kid ourselves, here. Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, and, yes, Secular Humanistic Judaism all arise primarily from Ashkenazic forms of Jewish life, and Ashkenazic Jewish life was very much preoccupied with Talmud study–so much so that the Mussar movement came about to make yeshiva bochurs a bit less of a bunch of amei ha-aretz!

When you combine this idealized focus on textual literacy with the lives of most modern Jews in the West and the heavy influence of Protestant-inspired worship practices, you can see what happens: Jewish services, perhaps more than any Christian denomination, become incredibly liturgical activities. And with the influence of Western Christian modes of worship, liberal Jewish congregations start to look more and more routinized and orderly; turn the page when prompted, recite the responsive lines.

For many people, this “works.” I don’t mean to say that it’s liked–but it is capable at least of being tolerated by most people as “just what we do” or “just the way it is.” But we know they don’t do it too often.

There are, of course, people who can’t do this. Individuals of all ages, with all manner of differences in physical, psychological, and emotional abilities, are precluded from full participation in Jewish life when Jewish life spends most of its time sitting and (sometimes seeming interminably) standing, with a book in its hand, following the choreography of the typical service.

In short, even when we pay lip service to those who can’t ask, we don’t adjust very much to reach those individuals.

Liberal forms of Judaism would seem to be in an ideal position to address this–or at least liberal forms of Judaism that aren’t doing the halakhic thing would seem to be, since there’s no necessary requirement that certain prayers be recited in a certain way at certain times. This seems like it wouldn’t be that big a deal–the evening Amidah is in the evening, right?–but when your tradition is focused on parsing out Tractate Berakhot’s requirements for when the afternoon minchah prayers must be recited (is it p’lag haminchah? inclusive or uninclusive? See b. Ber. 26a et seq.), you’re not really operating at a particularly flexible level. (Yeah, there I am, looking right at you, Conservative Movement. Again.)

This means that, too often, the promise of liberal Judaism for those who can’t easily function textually and in neat rows (or even neat circles in a chavura-style service) is lost.

Are we doing better at awareness of this? I think so. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.

What we’re not doing well is making changes–real changes–to how Jewish community services operate when it comes to people who “look fine” but who are cognitively and behaviorally not typical. Put another way–it’s easy to lower a mezuzah or build a ramp. But a room with rows, bright lights, amplification, and choreographed movement is a much different challenge.

Where can liberal Judaism come in here? The less committed we are to “doing it like it’s been done,” the more likely we are to be able to make meaningful Jewish experiences for people with various types of disabilities and differences. Some thoughts follow.

Enough with Siddurs

I know, I know, it’s hard to let go of the script. It is. But they’re hard to manage for many people. Just think about the cumbersome nature of this for those of us who are neurotypical and physically able to manage a siddur. How often have you lost your place? It’s irritating when you’re lost and it’s obvious you should be on a different page. Now imagine managing that when you’re dealing with the inability to manage in a too-loud, too-crowded, too-regimented environment.

What to use instead? I actually think an infographic-style, large, laminated, double-sided page would be great, with improvisation on the part of those leading ceremonies and celebrations. But you can’t do this kind of adaptive work if you’re committed to large-scale halakhic compliance. For the visually impaired, Braille would be necessary. For those with limited literacy, there are picture-based systems like Boardmaker that would come into play.

The point is, this is doable–and it’s doable in the synagogues and communities, without a large central publishing house.

Open Seating

This doesn’t only mean “sit where you like”–though it does mean that, too.

It means moveable furniture in configurable spaces to allow tight areas for those who need tight, and loose areas for those who need loose. It means leaving areas open for kids to run when they need to run, and protecting some areas so that those who can’t afford to have the kids run over them can remain safe.

It also means having a room where people can go to quiet down, and a room where people can go if they need to “get out their ya-yas,” as we say about Secular Jew, Jr. when he’s particularly wound up and in need of some free-range activities or a sensory break

Drop the Mic

Amplification is a big issue. For those who hear differently, volume is a tricky thing–someone with a hearing aid may think something is too loud, or too quiet; someone with sensory problems may not have a problem with high volume, but high or low pitches may be problematic. We need to look at what the best practices are in these environments and adapt our music, our liturgy, and our sermons and talks to meet these. It may involve more visual aids, speaking more slowly, and speaking less.

Special Routines

Routine is important. Services and celebrations aimed at people with differing needs should be routine, following the same pattern, being careful about introducing new melodies, and using visual schedules that allow participants to know what’s next and when, and where the program is in its overall plan.

The Bottom Line

There are many more things to be done. You can start with the inclusion guidelines that come from any number of secular and religious organizations. (Here’s the Union for Reform Judaism’s page with resources, for example–and if you keep following the links, you’ll see many of their guidelines are largely aimed at inclusion of people who are less readily mobile than individuals who are able to walk with ease.)

It may be the case that these things can’t be done on every occasion. But they need to happen regularly–not just once a year or a few times a year, but often enough to ensure that those who otherwise would be marginalized are made a part of the community as often as possible.

The bottom line is that many, many of these individuals want to participate–but they just don’t know how to ask. Liberal Judaism is particularly well-equipped to do this. And as we learn at Passover, when they can’t ask, it’s our job to start to figure out how to find their answers.

(As a post-script, I think that Humanistic Judaism is the best equipped to do this, because we give tradition a voice, but not a vote. Yeah, that’s right–it’s a voice, not a vote, pace Mordechai Kaplan.)