What Is The “I” Word And What Can We Do About It?


Early this summer, a New York City policewoman was suspended after being caught encouraging her niece to use the N-word. The “N word” is so revolting that we never say the word itself.

We who have disabilities often hear what I will call the “I Word.” The media and some educators, health professionals, clergy and parents use it as if it were a fact rather than an opinion.

The “I-word” is “impossible.”

Too many individuals and institutions conclude that our integration into synagogues, schools, camps, social activities, employment and family life is impossible. That’s not the Torah’s view.

God’s Stance Regarding “Impossible”

The Book of Numbers (11, 4—33) describes a very tough moment for Moses as he leads the Israelites through the wilderness. Though nourished by miraculous manna, they crave meat.

Moses wonders whether it’s possible to provide meat for two million people in the Israelite camp. God responds “Is God’s power limited?”

A mighty wind then sweeps countless quail into the Israelite encampment. Rashi elaborates that they hovered at waist height, so that even a lazy person could catch them.

An Ongoing Divine Gift that Defies “Impossible”

Sharknado notwithstanding, fauna no longer fall from the sky. However, our God-given human nature can, with imagination and creativity, make the seemingly impossible into an everyday reality. Here are some examples:

Recruiting Soldiers with Disabilities

Everybody knows that it’s “impossible” for a person with a disability to join the Army. That is, until Ariel Almog, defying “impossible,” founded

Gdolim B’Madim, or “Great in Uniform,” enabling young men and women with disabilities to serve in the IDF, the Israel Defense Force. Currently, there are 350 such soldiers serving on 22 IDF bases.

Using Technology to Increase Mobility

People who are paralyzed from the waist down, due to spinal cord injuries, are routinely advised “You will never walk again.” Now, some of them wear exoskeletons which stimulate nerves of the hip and knees, and enable them to move about. Ironically, insurance companies are reluctant to pay for these devices because, among other things, “they don’t lead to a cure”

Producing Current Jewish News in Braille

About eight years ago, the weekly Mishpacha Magazine featured an article about me. Its editors apologetically explained that it was impossible to produce a braille edition of the periodical.

Now, thanks to the generosity of George Karfunkel and the ingenuity of CSB Care, many of us who are blind enjoy reading Mishpacha’s Braille Edition almost every week.

A Challenge for the New Year

As we pursue integration into our Jewish communities, we are no longer content to passively accept the judgment of others about what is and is not possible. That’s why Yad Hachazakah—the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, spearheaded the creation of the Yad Empowers Alliance.

The Yad Empowers Alliance is a body of individuals, guided by Orthodox Jewish standards, working to increase accessibility for and participation by people with disabilities in their Jewish communities. At its June 11, 2017 kick-off luncheon, seventy people shared their struggles and triumphs, and learned advocacy skills to achieve integration.

Disabled and non-disabled individuals are welcomed and encouraged to join us as we work to eliminate attitudinal, transportation, communication and physical barriers to employment, education, worship, events, and marriage.  Contact Yad HaChazakah at 646-723-3955 or at Access@YadEmpowers.org.

As we enter the New Year 5778, May God bless our efforts to minimize the “I-word” in the lives of people with disabilities.

Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.