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How I Found My Place in the Jewish Community Despite My Disability

How I Found My Place in the Jewish Community Despite My Disability


I turned 60 a few weeks ago. I’ve had cerebral palsy since birth. My speech is slurred, my gait is awkward and the use of my hands is impaired. I have lived much of my life as an observant Jew. I know what it’s like to function as a person with a disability and be active within the Jewish community.

For decades, the status of Jews with disabilities was not discussed. The reasons are complex. In part, they’re consequences of our people’s emphasis on academic and professional achievement. While some parents boasted about the accomplishments of their children, those whose children were unable to have such success were often silent. Another reason is that many parents have concerns that children with disabilities have enough to overcome without adding “extra” Jewish education or preparation for a bar or bat Mitzvah.

It is widely estimated that approximately 19 percent of the general population lives with a disability. There is no reason to believe that the incidence of disability is any lower among Jews. I suspect that many of us do not see Jews with disabilities actively participating in synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Jewish communities are now looking at how the needs of this segment of the population are and are not being met. What is missing in the conversation is the presence of Jews who have disabilities. Often there is a perception that people with disabilities are helpless individuals deserving of pity, or should be placed on pedestals for living courageous or heroic lives. Most of us merely struggle from day to day trying to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

For my 60th birthday, my wife and I sponsored the Shabbat kiddush at our shul. The rabbi devoted his sermon to how inspirational I am for walking to shul every week, even when it’s sometimes difficult for me. Walking has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older. Still, talk of me being inspirational or heroic has always made me uncomfortable.

I know many people with disabilities who adopt distinctively Jewish lifestyles. I’ve done what hundreds of people do—allow our behavior to be shaped by halachah as much as possible. I believe halachah to be divinely ordained. I have no dispensation from performing mitzvot to the best of my ability just because of my disability.

Having a disability is never a blessing or an advantage. There has never been a time when I didn’t wish that I didn’t have cerebral palsy. It makes everything, including living Jewishly, more difficult. People with disabilities often say that their greatest challenges come from the actions and attitudes of other people, not from the disability itself.

I sometimes deal with people who think that I have an intellectual disability. My parents couldn’t find a congregational Hebrew school that would accept me as a student. The administrators of every congregational school in my native Toronto claimed that I couldn’t handle a religious education in addition to my secular studies. Fortunately, a small, family-run Hebrew school in Toronto taught me Hebrew, Torah and prayer, and trained me for my bar mitzvah.

In saying that my disability is a burden, I also appreciate the ways in which I have been blessed. I was blessed with parents who drove me to strive and succeed. They expected me to excel educationally and professionally, and be Jewishly literate. Dad wanted me to have an intensive Jewish education. He didn’t consider mere preparations to chant at my bar mitzvah adequate. Every Shabbat, we studied the weekly Torah portion. Synagogue attendance, on Shabbat and weekday mornings, became my regular routine.

In early adulthood, I started to attend a minyan—the “Downstairs Minyan” at Toronto’s large Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, where Rabbi Chaim Sacknowitz taught one Jewish law every Shabbat. Rabbi Sacknowitz’s minyan became the center of my social life. Although it’s been 19 years since I left Toronto, I still have many of the friendships I developed there.

As a university undergraduate, I took a number of courses in Jewish history and philosophy. Today, Rabbi Mendel Silberstein studies Talmud with me for an hour every week.

All of this helped me make up for the intensive early Jewish education that I would like to have had. Even so, I miss not having the opportunity to attend a Jewish day school.

My disability has been and always will be part of who I am. I try not to let to let it define me. As a journalist, my work is judged solely on its merit, without being colored by my disability. I’m more interested in readers knowing my take on the latest twist in Middle East politics or Jewish communal affairs than about living with my disability.

Martin Krossel is a freelance political journalist living in New York. This article contains excerpts from an earlier article published in The Times of Israel.
The Ruderman-Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of human and educational resources to create a Culture of Inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Helen Dudden Uk January 7, 2017

Today, I so badly wanted to attend Shul.I've not been for two weeks and the part of me that makes me live and breathe as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother wanted to feel the compassion of what I believe. I couldn't go, the Shul I've been attending here in Bristol is not accessible. It wet and slippery with old fashioned metal handrails to the stairs. I long to feel close to Hashem. But because my sight impairment worsens again, its not safe.
Hashem loves me for what I am, I try to be as beautiful as I can be on the inside. The stone remains firmly placed before me, a very stone with little chance of moving. Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg December 18, 2016

Thank you Reply

Helen Dudden united kingdom December 18, 2016

I still struggle with attitudes here in the UK. I thought never putting a stone in front of a blind person was a good example written many, many years ago.
This is a situation that will never do anything positive for future disabled people. Its also law, that we appreciate the need to care for those with disabilities. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI February 17, 2016

I found my own place in the Jewish Community. Jacob in NJ, I was born with Asperger's myself, so I understand what it's like to be a social outcast, which includes being the one person in the group that nobody likes.

Thankfully, I get therapy and take medication for depression and anxiety, and I made friends at my synagogue.

I agree with you that there's so much more work to do in this situation, and having a learning disability shouldn't be a lonely experience for anyone! Reply

Yehudis Steiner Toronto February 11, 2016

Thank you Beautiful article. I was looking for an article on this topic. Thank you for sharing. Very inspirational. Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol February 11, 2016

There is still someway to go. I know in the UK, lack of understanding is a large problem.

As most of you have bravely spoken out, and said, I have a disability, we have to do more, and can do more. Little girls who are deaf, Jacob with Aspergers, Shuls that include the ability to be mobile. Mental health, all disabling disabilities.

We are all not perfect. Reply

Rich February 11, 2016

It's a disability if some cannot feel compassion so do this If you are at a bat mitzvah a wedding a bar mitzvah and some looks left out because they are chair bound with an ailments remember this. When we as jews dance we lift a person on a chair higher than others when we dance. At the last barmizvah I wheeled my father so he can be part of rhe occasion. He has parkinsons. Hushem will bless you if your heart is in the right place. Reply

Jacob NJ February 11, 2016

asperger's I've had Asperger's since birth. I've often felt isolated from my community. Even shluchim will pass you over.. they might help you put on some teffilin, or perhaps a friendly smile, or an occasional Shabbos dinner, but that is where it ends. I never felt accepted or embraced in the community, and the jobs I've worked are typical of non-jews working for jews... which is a rough place to be. I see how my community treats working-wage, low-educated folks and it hurts. There is definitely a subtle belief that smarter people deserve a better life than less-smart people.

This isn't a problem unique to us... I've seen it in many different groups and religions.... altho sadly it seems that xtian groups do more to include their people with mental disabilities compared to us.

We have much work to do. My personal experiment may have been a failed one, but there are many generations ahead we need to do better for. Reply

Anonymous Johannesburg February 10, 2016

Thank you for this article Martin. I too have a disability - mental illness controlled by medication and according to my psychiatrist I am now completely stable as long as I take my 'pill' Reply

Shoshie Ontario February 10, 2016

I am Deaf & went to a Jewish Deaf seminary in the US & then returned home certified and ready to teach Jewish Deaf kids. I came to Toronto & there were over a dozen that I met immediately & none of the families permitted me to teach them. All Orthodox families, all of the kids could sign or with difficulty lip read, they were put into Jewish schools without supports and the kids never got a chance. Some of the boys did eventually when a Yeshiva for Deaf boys was built in Toronto but still today, there is nothing for girls. And since I was also educated to teach children with other disabilities, I applied to the one school that had children with intellectual disabilities. They refused to hire me because 1) I was Deaf & 2) I had disability (I am an incomplete quadriplegic). I have an immense Jewish education & for the first 15 years after graduating and still continuing my studies, I tried everywhere to get a job in the Jewish community & I was constantly turned away. Very sad. Reply

Diane Albuquerque, NM & Maine February 9, 2016

So nspiring-Although I became disabled At age 45! Your words helped me so much. I'm a woman who became disabled at 45 yo. I have had disabilities in walking which had me in a wheelchair, and now I walk with a cane. (No diagnosis for it.) I have with severe scoliosis, fibromyalgia, and now eye, facial, and neck spasms (forms of Dystonia) all movement disorders.

I grew up very Reform so I didn't get much of a Jewish education. Today, my current husband (who not only accepts me with disabilities) but also encourages me to learn more Judaism as well as be able to do what I can. We began attending services at Chabad in Bangor, Maine in summer & fall, & in Albuquerque, NM the rest of year. It is great how Chabad has accepted me & understand my challenges.

Now, at age 64, I'm retired, & still I had anger to G-d for this change in my life circumstances. Seeing how you adapted, is inspirational. I express myself & my soul by crating my fabric art & quilting, making challah covers, & Judaic art. Still not sure G-d's mission for me. Thanks! Reply

Miriam Fishman Los Angeles February 8, 2016

I am honored to have "met" you through this article. Your recollections & gratitude epitomize the innate core of a jew. I wiish I had half your fortitude for achievement & seeming peace of mind. Our comunity has become more aware and inclusive of the disabled among us and it will increase ,thank g-d Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol February 8, 2016

A very respected person, you have not let difficulties defeat you.

I hope this is a model to help others. Hashem sees farther than what we look like, its more important to love others for what they are, not the superficial.

I would to see all Shuls accessible, open to those with disabilities and need. Learning, is what being Jewish is all about. Reply

Sylvia UK February 8, 2016

Disability and beauty Sadly some people cannot see beyond a disability, yet, it can be like the soul where one needs to see beyond the surface.

We are created the way we are for a purpose and this is how HaShem loves us all individually. Not comforting words for those in pain, lonely, isolated or shunned by society as a whole.

Martin and the inspiration of his parents teaches us all that their is a person beyond the label. Thank you for sharing your experiences Martin. Reply

Chana Toronto February 8, 2016

Martin is awesome! Thank you Martin for sharing your beautiful and inspiring message.
As a member of the Toronto Jewish community, I know firsthand how beloved and respected you are. You are an inspiration in the truest sense of the word! May G-d grant you continued mazal and success in all your endeavors. May you go from strength to strength! Reply

Helen Dudden Bristol.:-) February 7, 2016

I have always had a sight issue, since I could remember its been there. I tried not to see it as something that was not there. I struggled.

I know a little how Martin feels, its difficult in the real world.

I want to convert at 67 years of age, not just within the rules of Judaism, be part of it. For many years I have kept my beliefs.

My brain is programmed to see life this way.

I want the Shul I attend to be more disabled friendly, we are all living longer for a start. I would love for it to have disabled access, it would help all of us. Surgery, broken limbs, babies in parks. We welcome all.

Hashem excepts us all, if you look at our forefathers they too had disabilities, I hope the Rabbi will help me with the answer on those who excepted their disabilities and we remember with all our Jewish beliefs as being our foundations. Reply