(Names and situation changed as requested)
It is difficult and expensive to make old institutions accessible to wheelchairs. Most bimas (elevated platform where services are led in the synagogue) have steps, as do most synagogue entrances, funeral parlors, mikvos, and schools. Consequently, we have in our community the aged, the disabled (both young and old) who are denied access to the very institutions they need in order to live a Jewish life.
If a man cannot enter the synagogue of his choice because he is in a wheelchair; if he cannot get on to the bima to receive an aliya when called to the Torah; if a woman cannot use the mikva because she cannot climb steps; if people cannot pay their last respects to their family and friends, perhaps even a spouse at a funeral because the funeral parlor has only stairs, then have we indeed fulfilled our responsibility as Jews?
Chava Laya was a young married woman when an accident left her unable to walk without difficulty. She often used a wheelchair and could sometimes manage with a walker. Stairs, however, were impossible for her to deal with. Because Chava Laya lived in a new development, most of the buildings she needed were accessible. The community center and the shul all had ramps and she had no problem getting into them. The problem came with the mikva. Although the entrance to the building was level with the ground and had no steps, the actual mikva pools had steps. This effectively barred Chava Laya from entering the mikva.
The Chesed Shel Emes was the community funeral parlor in Romi’s town. It was the only Jewish funeral parlor. Many people had complained that is was old and tired looking and needed some sprucing up, and so some community money was gotten together to paint and renovate. The outside was power washed and looked quite nice, the inside was painted and the place had become very serene looking and appropriate once again. Since the community was ageing, someone brought up concerns about accessibility. The board felt they already had wheelchair access in the back and a new entrance wasn’t needed. If you were in a wheelchair and needed to enter the building, this is how it was done.
Someone who could walk would have to take the wheelchair to the alley, leave it there, and go into the building and ask someone in the office to unlock the back door. Once the back door was opened, the wheelchair could be pushed through a very narrow hallway that had an opened steep stairwell on its right side.
If you managed to get through the hallway without tipping the wheelchair down the steps, you could then noisily open the old door that led into the chapel. You would then find yourself in front of the entire congregation, including the mourners and the deceased. Entering was often noisy and disruptive. Imagine what it was like to enter late after the service had already begun?
There was a wonderful yeshiva in David’s neighborhood. He was looking so forward to going there with his friends. David had been born with Spina Bifida and needed a wheelchair to get around. He had made an excellent adjustment to his handicap and had many neighborhood friends. The problem was that the yeshiva was in an old building. The classrooms on many floors and steps were everywhere. David’s parents met with the school. It was decided that David’s aide would carry him in his chair into the building and wherever he needed to go. The aide would do all the lifting. This worked not badly in kindergarten and grade one, but as David got older he got heavier. Each grade meant it was harder and harder to carry David around the building. David began to get more embarrassed as he grow older. Everyone, including David, began to wonder what would happen in high school. That is, if they managed to get through carrying him around elementary school and he survived the embarrassment.
Herschel visited his children for Yom Tov. He had an orderly with him to help with his needs, as he was severely physically handicapped. He was looking forward to spending this time with his children and grandchildren. Herschel was surprised to find that not only was the shul his son belonged to inaccessible, but there was not a single synagogue in the neighborhood that was wheelchair friendly.
Our institutions often reflect our values as a community. We are instructed to build a mikva even before we build a shul. It is part of our priorities for survival. But, is it survival for the majority of the community or all of us? Are our institutions open to everyone in our community or have we excluded a few? If we have excluded – even inadvertently – some in our community, maybe we need to take another look at our community institutions. Is not that our responsibility as Jews?
(Names and situation changed as requested)