The Pandemic as an Accessibility Equalizer

Photo courtesy Matan

By Dori Frumin Kirshner, Meredith Polsky, and Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

There’s a teaching from Pirkei Avot (1:4) that instructs us, “Let your home be a meeting place for sages.” This 2000 year old compendium of Jewish wisdom probably never envisioned teachers and students, rabbis and congregants, counselors and campers being invited into one another’s homes via Zoom, sharing knowledge and support through rows of boxes on a computer screen. But in the weeks, and now months, since the start of the Coronavirus Pandemic, this is exactly how our homes have become “meeting places for sages.”

Indeed, we have witnessed virtually (no pun intended!) the entire Jewish communal world pivot on a dime. We have seen our synagogues, religious schools, Jewish day schools and early childhood programs, in some cases in a matter of hours, transform their sacred spaces into online experiences that prioritize accessibility and human connection over most everything else. We have been awed by the resiliency of adults and children alike as we all adapt and respond to an entirely new (albeit temporary) reality of social distancing and stay at home orders.

We have seen rabbis give comfort to mourners who they cannot physically sit with, congregational school leaders leap into a world of apps that had previously eluded them, and Jewish day schools immersing themselves in project-based learning. The Jewish community is planning virtual celebrations with great intention, connecting families who previously had not met in brick and mortar buildings, and even seeing a rise in participation in spiritual engagement opportunities.

To be sure, our experiences – even in the Jewish sector – have not all been uniform. Some of us are managing previously unknown financial hardships; others are on the frontlines fighting the virus; still others have become ill and/or have lost loved ones at an alarming rate. But in other significant ways, this pandemic has become “the great equalizer” of accessibility issues that just a few months ago rested solely on the shoulders of people with disabilities and those deeply rooted in the work of inclusion.

While most of the world is flexing a new muscle, replete with the exhaustion and soreness that accompanies a new workout, the disability community holds deep wisdom about innovation and adaptation. It is this community that has been “flexing this muscle” for years, having to “figure it out” in a largely ableist society that has – up until now – been quite slow in responding to diverse needs and abilities.

Now, we are all faced with access issues, whether with virtual school, online meetings or even a remote Passover seder. Together, we have discovered new ways to experience ritual, to enhance customs and to ensure that everyone is included.

Why did it take a pandemic?

The need to adapt has been amplified over the past eight weeks, as 100% of people are experiencing a collective access challenge. We are discovering something that the 20% of people with disabilities, often excluded or marginalized, have long known: accessibility and inclusion are not luxuries. They are not to be considered only “if we have extra funds,” or as an “add-on” after a program has already been developed. Indeed, our entire Jewish community is enriched when everyone can participate in relevant and meaningful ways that are designed to be accessible.

Adaptability is an asset that the disability community has in abundance. As challenging as the Coronavirus Pandemic is, it also offers us the opportunity for a course correction in the Jewish community. It provides the chance for us to expand our circles of care and concern to encompass – and learn from – those who historically have felt forgotten, left out and unimportant.

Innovation and change are scary, but not unknown. Let’s use the many successes of these past weeks as a jumping off point for even greater inclusion; let’s work to understand how children and adults with different learning needs can best access remote classrooms and virtual communities; let’s remember – long after this pandemic is over – what it means to adapt, pivot and include; and most importantly, let’s not reinvent the wheel. We now have an unparalleled and exciting opportunity to avail ourselves of generations of collective disability wisdom and experience that we may not have utilized before. Indeed, our Jewish community can truly become a meeting place for all sages.

Dori Frumin Kirshner serves as the Executive Director of Matan. Prior to coming to Matan, Dori worked at The UJA-Federation of New York for seven years, in both planning and fundraising capacities. Dori is a sought-after national speaker on the issue of Jewish inclusion, and has published articles and Op-Ed’s in dozens of publications.

Meredith Polsky founded Matan in 2000 and serves as its National Director of Institutes and Training. She is a 2017 Covenant Award recipient and co-author of the award-winning I Have a Question children’s book series.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, based in the Washington, D.C. area, is a sought after speaker, spiritual leader and educator. She was named to the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 for her innovative work concerning Jews with disabilities in Jewish communal and religious life, and delivered a 2017 ELI Talk entitled We Were All At Sinai: The Transformative Power of Inclusive Torah.