This month, Jewish communities across North America take time to recognize and celebrate one of the world’s largest and often overlooked minorities: persons with disabilities. Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) was launched by a Jewish educational consortium in February 2009. It’s no surprise that its call to action resonates loudly with Canadians – Canada is believed to be the only country in the world that has disability rights enshrined in its constitution.
As someone with disabilities, I can see why a cold and often blustery month was chosen to mark the need for better inclusion. February weather often comes with its own navigational challenges. For the more than 6.2 million Canadians who live with disabilities, icy streets, cold, rain, snow and dismal skies can be even greater impediments to independence.
As I discovered one winter, however, an inclusive community can also play a significant role in easing those challenges. In 2015, my husband and I were in Idaho caring for his mother when I received word that my mom was in the hospital. I needed to come back to Vancouver.
Returning home wasn’t an issue for me. I had traveled to Vancouver many times to visit and care for family members. Attending Shabbat services at my local synagogue had become a ritual each trip that helped provide balance and focus. The Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library, which afforded me a place to write, had been my other essential refuge.
But this time there was a problem: I couldn’t make the trip alone. As is true with many people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, my symptoms were multi-factorial and differed according to the time of year. In this case, my biggest adversary was the ups and downs of winter weather and their impact on my circulatory system. This year, the flares were worse. I knew Happy, my trained service dog, would be needed in order to make the trip. Weighing 50 kilograms and hip-high, my King shepherd was strong enough not only to provide support when I walked, but help me up when I fell.
Judaism has never been terribly comfortable with the idea of an animal stepping inside a synagogue, even a professionally trained service dog. In my grandparents’ time, such considerations would have been unheard of. The prospect of a guide dog inspired lengthy debates by 20th-century rabbis who held wildly differing views about the appropriate accommodation for community members with disabilities. As I picked up the phone to call the synagogue, I readied myself for the possibility that I wouldn’t be attending Shabbat services that trip.
There was an understandable pause on the other end of the line when I asked if I could bring my mobility service dog to services. I was told to hold on; she would ask the rabbi. The answer came almost instantaneously: the congregation would be pleased to welcome us to shul.
If there is anything that these last two years of COVID precautions have underscored, it’s the irreplaceable value of community. Sitting in synagogue and having access to the community resources I cherished during my times in Vancouver helped provide a sense of normalcy while I dealt with my mother’s illness. Happy’s stoic, quiet strength not only gave physical support when I needed it, but a heightened sense to unfamiliar territory. Research has found that service dogs can detect changes in heart rate with a range of medical challenges, including heart conditions and diabetes. More than once, Happy guided me back to a point of safety when he sensed my legs weren’t able to navigate the cold.
To educate the library’s many young visitors about its unusual working visitor, the head librarian at the time, Helen Pinsky, informed patrons of Happy’s visit. The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver did its part to make us feel welcome as well. Most surprising were the parents’ reactions. Many saw our presence as an opportunity to teach children about respecting the role of a service dog and the person at his side. One mother confided that her little boy, who struggled with his own physical disability, was uplifted when he met Happy.
This issue’s article on disability explores the many ways that Vancouver Jewish institutions are working to increase disability awareness and inclusion. (Click here to read.) The examples are paired against research that suggests that while U.S., Canadian and Israeli Jewish communities continue to make remarkable strides in this area, there’s more that can be done. Building a disability-inclusive community is most successful, the research found, when leadership reflects the society it leads. We spoke with one rabbi who is using his own medical challenges to uplift and inspire those with differing abilities in his community.
I have come to realize over the years that a truly inclusive community is one that sees no limitations in how it defines capacity. We all have our limitations, and our unique gifts. We all have our dis-abilities. By bolstering diversity and inclusion in the society in which we live, we not only lift up those beside us, we lift those who will follow after us.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.