Disability Justice is a Jewish Issue

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Originally posted February 22, 2016

By Shari Zakim-Yacouby and Talya Sokoll

Talya: One thing I’ve learned in my 30 years as a Jew is that there is no one right way to be Jewish. Although my experience of living a fulfilling Jewish life has been intrinsically intertwined with the communities I am part of, I feel so blessed to be a part of a religion that allows me to, as the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston puts it, do Jewish “my way.” For me, this means constantly working towards creating Jewish spaces that are welcoming and accessible to every Jew who wants to join them. It is through this lens that I recently became part of Mayyim Hayyim’s 10th cohort of Mikveh Guides. I’ve noticed, unfortunately, that many of the Jewish organizations I am part of do not go far enough in making their spaces, both physical and spiritual, accessible to everyone.

Mayyim Hayyim, however, is different. While some organizations think about accessibility and inclusion as an afterthought, or not at all, Mayyim Hayyim includes it as a key component of its mission, and not just through lip service. When my friend Shari went to immerse before her August 2015 wedding, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

Shari: After twelve years in a wheelchair I have come across my fair share of assumptions made regarding my level of independence. At Mayyim Hayyim I did not feel judged or that assumptions were being made about my ability level. Instead my Mikveh Guide simply asked questions and most importantly, she listened to my answers. She asked me how I would prefer to immerse and she informed me that Mayyim Hayyim has a lift that would be available if I was interested in using it. After telling her that I would prefer not to use the lift she did not question it again. She listened to me and was willing to accommodate my preferences (which believe it or not is rather rare!) My Mikveh Guide made me feel so comfortable and safe.

Immersing was an incredibly moving experience for both my mother and I. For her, seeing her daughter take part in a historic ritual that Jewish women have been doing for centuries was emotional, especially considering this experience was available to me despite my physical disability. For me, it was the feeling of being so at peace, comfortable in my skin, and so at home – it was a feeling that I was not anticipating. I did not feel like ‘a bride with a disability,’ I felt like I was part of a community and a ritual, along with those that have immersed before me.

Talya: I feel proud and immensely grateful that Mayyim Hayyim exists in our city. It makes a meaningful ritual available to everyone who wants to take part. Mayyim Hayyim, along with other organizations like Keshet and the JCC, are models for what organic inclusion can look like in a Jewish space. What we can learn from Mayyim Hayyim is never to make assumptions about a person’s needs. Assuming we know what a person with disabilities needs for access without checking in with them first is not effective and is disrespectful. Our tradition is based on respecting the infinite dignity of every living being. If we want to create a truly inclusive Jewish community, we must make sure all voices are heard.

Shari Zakim-Yacouby is a social worker at Boston Medical Center. She graduated from the BU School of Social Work in 2014.  A strong advocate for social justice, she serves on the board of the Lenny Zakim Fund, providing grants to grassroots non-profits.

Talya Sokoll is a librarian at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA. She graduated from Simmons School of Library and Information Science in 2012.  Passionate about many things, she is a volunteer Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim, a proud Big Sister to Alexis through Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and a member of Moishe Kavod House in Brookline. 

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