Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What is YOUR normal?

As part of my preparations for a conference I am planning for the Orthodox Jewish population of the Greater Philadelphia area on February 28, 2016 which is entitled, Halacha and Community: Challenges and Approaches, I am reading a lot of materials these days about potentially marginalized groups whom we are obligated by Torah as much as our own ethical standards to include in our community. This has taken me to a reading prepared by a colleague of mine from many years of being part of a wonderful national community of Jewish educators, Rabbi Elliot Dorff. In his piece, “Meshanah HaBeriot” he envisions a new approach to thinking about disabilities and limitations. He imagines a world where the disabled or limited person is not the marginalized individual, but rather we all see ourselves as “temporarily abled” and bound to become disabled at some point. He talks about how we should accept and include everyone with his/her/their differences. I highly recommend this thoughtful piece which can be found here (

Rabbi Dorff entitles his paper with the words one says when one blesses God for making different people when we see someone who is visibly different. Yes, we bless God for our differences, our abilities, our disabilities, all of it! What a concept! What a different world this would be if we could be so aware of all of us, that no one would be disadvantaged because of disabilities or differences, but all would be included and embraced for their value and potential contributions to the collective. Yes, it’s a bit idealistic, in fact, a lot, and this, too, is acknowledged by my colleague!

Nonetheless, I was reminded of dear friends of ours from years ago, Ari and Stacy Goldberg, whose daughter Rina z’l, suffered from chronic health problems due to mitochondrial disease. Her theme was B+ (that is Be Positive!) and this young girl was a teacher to all who included her and accommodated her needs. Not only are we obligated to include all members in our community, we stand to learn so much about abilities, the challenges of disabilities, the resilience of spirit well placed, and the many blessings we have no matter what the challenges may be. Ari spoke so beautifully at Rina’s funeral about expecting to take one ride (a normal one, perhaps) with their daughter when Rina came into their lives; but ultimately finding a new and different normal when her various challenges presented. It is hard to continually be mindful of this, but we all know so many stories of HEROES who have shown us the way, precisely through their addressing of whatever disabilities, or different abilities, they may have.

Is it NORMAL to expect that there will not be deficits, impairments, weaknesses and such in our bodies and as we progress through life? Of course not! It is here that Rabbi Dorff challenges us to think of ourselves, when appropriate as “temporarily abled.” This turns the table on disabilities in a powerful psychological way. He also addresses the obvious financial and logistical dynamics of what it would take to truly build such a society. Earlier this year, Knoxville, Tennessee made the news by becoming an official “dementia-friendly community,” so that people with various memory impairment conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s, etc.) could function in a safe and supportive environment. Having recently dealt with my own parents’ decline during the past several years, I was particularly touched by this notion and wonder if it is indeed feasible for us to engage in more such efforts.

What is normal? Last night I was enjoying a reunion with some friends from different stages in my life. During our lovely dinner, it was pointed out to me that another person from my past was sitting several tables away. I would never have recognized her as she has had serious health problems due to a hemorrhagic stroke. My friend at the table was describing her recent wedding to her new husband and what an amazing experience it was to be there. Clearly, this is yet another example of considering a different normal. I hope that the future will give me a chance be in touch with this person and continue to feel the power of the blessing of having her and her family in my life in much younger years, when we were all able… and to continue to learn from her different “ableness.”

We are completing the cycle of the Torah readings of Bereshit, the book of Genesis at this season in the Jewish calendar. When I teach about the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their family members, I DO focus on what their deficits and disabilities are. Sometimes, I am asked why THESE PEOPLE are our role models and my answer is that is precisely because of their being touched and feeling the full impact of the human condition that they are apt role models. We may lose our sight as Yitzchak, lose our physical strength as Yaakov, not be as strong mentally, spiritually or in other ways as people around us in our lives and so on. That being said, if we think of ourselves as “temporarily able” maybe, just maybe, we will be cognizant of the blessings we have and be more attentive to the many more we learn from each other as we all work through our assigned challenges.

May 2016 bring healing to all who need it and remind all of us to think of as many different types of normal as possible.

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