Disability and Judaism: Our Fates are Linked


My partner, August, is a Deaf and Disabled person in the process of converting to Judaism. We have been facing a lot of ableism from our synagogue and August is teaching me about the way ableism shows up. Ableism is a spiritual wound and it shows up in many forms. Like white supremacy or misogyny, ableism exists in both explicit and implicit forms, and on the micro and macro level. A spiritual wound requires spiritual care, and we must not reopen the wound through spiritual community. 

Our fates as Jewish and disabled people are inextricably linked. Enduring the daily trauma, microaggressions, and discrimination of moving through this world and this country as a disabled person is not unlike the experience of enduring antisemitism. Ableism and antisemitism are both in the water here. We mirror each other’s struggles.

However, post traumatic stress is not the only thing that comes out of trauma; so does post traumatic growth. The experience of disability forces a person to become resilient and adaptable. We develop a special kind of ingenuity when we have to design the tools to lead ourselves. Disabilities make people better leaders, rather than disqualifying them from such positions. Shutting out Disabled people means shutting out leaders of the Jewish community.

Moses led us out of slavery, and he was disabled. He was hesitant to take on leadership, because of his speech impediment. I wonder often what it must have been like for him to experience liberation twice over. Moses left behind both Egypt and the idea that he could not lead. 

There’s a quote from Rabbi Michael Lerner that I like: 

“Don’t be realistic. Don’t let others tell you what is possible, because their view of what is possible is really simply a repeat of what is actual. And so this this is a core belief of mine that to believe in G-d is to believe that there is something in the universe that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be. And whatever that is, that’s what we mean by G-d. That’s what Yudhe Vavhe, the Jewish G-d, is about. Hevavhe is Hovet, it stands for the present tense. Yud in front of a verb indicates future tense. Yudhe Vavhe is the movement of the present into the future, the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be. Conversely, idolatry is worshiping, is being realistic. It is worshiping that which is; accepting that as the framework of what is possible.The fundamental message of Judaism is the world can be fundamentally transformed. We were slaves, and now we’re free. We have this story to tell because we have seen that the world can be fundamentally transformed, and that no form of oppression is necessary. It can all be transformed.”

The social model of Disability tells us we construct the idea that disability means a person can’t do something. We construct the idea of something being impossible. When we refuse to provide accommodations, we ensure it will be impossible. We ensure disabled people will not be present and will not be included or participating. ASL interpreters ensure not only that Deaf people can understand what is being said, but that hearing people can understand what Deaf people are saying. 

The philosophy of eugenics was first developed to be used on people with disabilities. Eugenics is the end goal of state sanctioned and enforced capitalism. Capitalism is an individualist Darwinian win-loss system, where it is every person for themselves, and only the “fittest” survive. When corporate capitalists merge with the state, we cross the line to fascism. Hitler called Disabled people “useless eaters” and designated them for death, deciding they were not worthy of investment. In the concentration camps, the sick, the very young, the old, and the frail were designated for the gas chambers immediately. They eliminated Disabled people first, eliminating our most natural allies as politically marginalized people. Eliminating oppressed groups one by one prevents us from organizing and working together.

My partner lives every day with the knowledge that their grandmother wanted August’s mother to abort them when she learned that August would be born Disabled. When their mother refused to terminate her pregnancy, August’s father wanted August to be institutionalized. My partner was born two years before the passing of the ADA and one generation after institutions began to close. They live every day with the knowledge of how close they came to being disappeared. Disabled people belong in community, living in their own homes, and being spiritually nourished in our synagogues. 

The background picture on August’s phone is a man named Bernard Carabello. Bernard was a young man with cerebral palsy who was institutionalized as a small child at a place called Willowbrook. He lived there for eighteen years, and spoke up to expose the human rights violations occurring there by sneaking in a journalist. Despite having lived there all his life, he knew another world and another life was possible for him and other Disabled people. Because he told his story, the world saw the truth of what was occurring within institutions, leading to the closing of Willowbrook and other state run facilities for Disabled people. August explained to me that they look up to Bernard because of his resilience, his sense of self, and his firm conviction that more was possible for him in the face of all evidence to the contrary. 

August once came home from an introduction to Judaism class in tears, saying they wished they were not Deaf or Disabled. They said they wished ASL was not their language, as the class made them feel it was more of a burden than a tool of communication. By refusing to provide interpreters, or trying to make Deaf people feel guilty for requesting interpreters, we contribute to the disappearance of ASL as a language. We contribute to “oralism,” or the idea that every Deaf person should learn to speak in English and get cochlear implants. This leads to a kind of genocide, as it suppresses the development and transmission of Deaf culture, language, and community. ASL is August’s language, and their hands are their voice. Forcing them to instead utilize other types of communication inhibits their ability to fully be who they are, as well as perpetuates white supremacist ideology. 

The same kind of ableist mentality is reinforced every time our synagogue makes it clear they feel the cost of paying for an ASL interpreter is higher than the price of Deaf people being excluded from community. When we decide it is too expensive to make our communities accessible, we are deeming people with disabilities unworthy of investment and existence in our communities. It may seem casual, but it is perpetuating the same philosophy of eugenics. 

I hear staff of Jewish organizations say things like “we don’t have enough Deaf people” or “we’ve never had someone in a wheelchair come,” as justifications for not being accessible. Those are self fulfilling prophecies, as inaccessible spaces prevent Disabled people from being present. It also reflects a lack of understanding and sensitivity of how historically, Disabled people have been systematically disappeared from their communities and institutionalized. To casually suggest that Disabled people aren’t present is to not see the systemic violence that caused their absence. It blames lack of access on Disabled people themselves and reflects a lack of motivation to change the status quo.

The way we approach people with disabilities must fundamentally change. We cannot answer requests for access with a knee jerk response of “we cannot afford it.” To be clear, I have heard that identical response from synagogues that vary wildly in size and budget. It is revealing. It shows it is not truly an issue of finances; it is an issue of priorities and power. Often this response is given prior to even examining a budget or educating ourselves on the costs of access. 

The immediacy of the reaction tells us nothing about budget and everything about what we believe to be possible and who we value. It is telling who feels they have the authority to decide what is possible and gatekeep access. The constraints we place on what we believe to be possible are limits we internalize from ableism. We must stop diminishing people with disabilities down to dollars and cents and what we believe they cost us. Instead, we must remember the limitless value they bring to a community, and the price we pay for their absence. Disabled people pay this price every day. We cannot put a price tag on Disabled lives. 

Organizations sometimes feel threatened when asked to provide access, and this includes religious institutions. They’re exempt from the ADA mandate to provide access. This was before the era of mega churches. Churches were afraid they would not be able to survive a flood of requests for building accommodations. We don’t need to feel threatened. Yes, it will take a radical restructuring to envision what access will look like. The necessary tools, resources, and frameworks may not even exist yet. Disabled people have often had to invent the accommodations and tools they need for access. Let us think of it not as a threat, or as a drain on resources, but as an opportunity for empowerment. This is a chance to collectively brainstorm, dream wildly, stretch our creative muscles, and be our most resilient selves. This is a chance to imagine the world we want to see. At my desk at work, I have my favorite quote by Angela Davis: “You must act as if it were possible to radically transform the world, and you must do it all the time.”

Capitalism is fundamentally the opposite of interdependence. Disabled people are a uniquely vulnerable population under capitalism, as they are often interdependent with other people. As a result, Disabled people represent the antithesis of capitalism. To suggest that accessibility is too expensive is to perpetuate casual eugenics and capitalism. We do not have to re-enact capitalism or fascism with each other. We do not have to perpetuate the idea that there are not enough resources to go around. We can be interdependent. As Laverne Cox says, “The scarcity model is a myth.” 

August has recently begun facilitating the disability caucus of Philadelphia Socialists, and they came home glowing after the first meeting they led. They were able to facilitate the meeting because Philly Socialists provided them with accommodations, in the form of an ASL interpreter. August told me that disabled people can be leaders with accommodations. They said that maybe people are scared by that idea, and their fear makes them hesitant to provide accommodations. Providing accommodations tangibly redistributes power. When their face lit up, I saw a glimpse of Olam Haba, the world as it can be. 

August and I had to organize and fight Philly Socialists in order to attain interpreters, which shows change is possible. Leftists and progressives can learn to expand their political analysis to include Disability justice, instead of always making Disabled people the first line item in the budget to be cut when they cite their shoe string budgets. This is a statement from 

the co chair of Philly Socialists: “In researching interpretation services and options over the weekend, I came across an article that talked about how organizations only see interpretation as expensive because they didn’t plan for it in their budget, so then it feels like there is no room. I’m not proud to say that we had this shortcoming. I also have been thinking about this line I recently heard someone say on a podcast, which is “a budget is a moral document.” 

I also got a glimpse at a meeting of Never Again Action, in which both ASL interpreters and Spanish translators were in one room. We built so much space for people to exist in community together. August loves these meetings, and feels a great deal of connection in them. At these meetings, they see accessibility can be done, without forcing anyone to justify their needs.

August recently started taking an introduction to Judaism class at a different synagogue that provides ASL interpreters who are competent in Judaism and Hebrew. August came home having learned the signs for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Moses, Shin, Bet, and Tav. They expressed appreciation for now being able to experience Judaism and Hebrew fully in multiple modalities and with all their senses. This is how Judaism should be. It should be something that fully engages us. 

August Nopoulos is a Deaf and Disabled trans activist who advocates for the full inclusion of Disabled people in Jewish life. August is an alum of Gallaudet University, where they were a freelance writer for the college newspaper, and a winner of the Macdougal Creative Writing Award. They are also a poet, flash fiction writer, voracious reader, and an alum of the Iowa Writers Workshop. 
Noah is a queer and trans Jewish community organizer, as well as a frequent contributor to Jewish Currents, New Voices, The Forward, Lilith, and Jewschool.