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"Is Our Tent Large Enough?"

I had an uplifting experience in shul this past Shabbat. Hadassah Blocker, a well-known Jewish educator and retired camp director, read from the Torah. For those in settings where women do not read from the Torah, this might sound unusual, but at Temple Emanuel in Newton, women have received aliyot and read from the Torah for many years. And for someone, like Hadassah, who has leyned hundreds of times, and prepared hundreds of adults to read Torah, this should not seem so unusual. But Hadassah is in a wheelchair.

About six months ago, I overheard Hadassah talking to a mutual friend over kiddush. The gyst of the conversation was that she was lamenting the fact that she is not able to stand at the reader's desk to read from the Torah. In a wheelchair, she cannot see the words or reach the appropriate spot in the Torah with a yad (pointer). I asked Hadassah why a table couldn't be procured that would enable her to leyn. "Is that possible?" she asked. "Why not?" I responded. "Let me check with the rabbi." Stealing a moment of Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz's kiddush time, I asked what he thought, and his response was, without equivocation, "Absolutely; just check with Nyunya." So I quickly went over to our head of maintenance, and he joined Hadassah and friends at the kiddush table, figuring out the logistics that would make it happen.

I understand there were some halachic (Jewish legal) questions that had to be resolved during the ensuing period. But I was confident that Conservative Judaism would find a way, consistent with its other rulings relative to Shabbat, to enable a person in a wheelchair to read from the Torah.

Fortunately, Temple Emanuel's sanctuary and bima are already handicapped accessible, so the rest, as they say, is history. But who would have thought that a woman with such ability and passion could be unwittingly prevented from doing that which she does so well - simply because the reader's desk is too high? I was reminded of an important lesson from all of this. People of good will, caring people, individuals who believe in works of hessed and tzedakah -- all of us, somehow need a little reminder that there are those whom we are leaving off the bima or outside the sanctuary door. And we need to do everything in our power to help them feel comfortable in our shuls.

We are taught that there are "shivim panim batorah" - seventy faces of Torah. There are many ways to understand this: different interpretations of the meaning of Torah, different musical variations to the cantillation, different views of how Torah can be applied to our lives. The interpretation that speaks most profoundly to me is the notion that there are multiple ways of living Jewishly, worshipping God, and expressing ourselves as Jews. Too often, we only think of the variety of faces in the Torah in terms of denominational leanings and ideological differences. As important as this is, I want to be sure that our tent is large enough for those who simply can't walk up to the Torah, or can't read the siddur, or can't see or hear what's happening in the service.

According to several people who spoke at Temple Emanuel's Shabbat service, access to the Torah and its wonderful teachings has never been more open. We can also be proud of the many innovations and groups in our community that have learned this lesson well - K'sharim, Etgar L'Noar, Minyan MeYOU'chad, and others that make our congregations and institutions accessible to individuals with special needs. Please join YESODOT and a coalition of CJP-funded agencies that serve people with special needs in supporting "Disability Awareness Month in the Jewish Community" during the Hebrew month of Iyar (April 29-May 27), and let your voice be heard.

If you would like to explore this further, please plan to attend a seminar for synagogue and community leaders entitled, "Breaking Down Barriers to Synagogue Affiliation." The seminar, featuring a panel of individuals who may feel left out or disenfranchised by our congregations, will be held on Sunday, March 26 at 7:30 pm at Temple Aliyah in Needham. See this website for further details.

Thank you, Hadassah Blocker, for raising your voice, and our consciousness.

Alan Teperow is Executive Director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and Managing Director of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. The Synagogue Council -- a joint venture of the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Congregations in Massachusetts -- has 120 member congregations and is the only interdenominational organization of its kind in all of North America. Visit the Synagogue Council's website: www.synagoguecouncil.org for further information.