The mother of disability rights made me, a rabbi, see how traditional Judaism can be dehumanizing, in the guise of pity.
About 13 years ago, Judy Heumann, the mother of the disability rights movement, publicly gave me a “speaking to” at a synagogue board meeting. I mean she really let me have it, with all the synagogue machers in the room watching.
Judy, who was a member of my congregation in Washington, DC, pointed out that what I had just presented in a d’var Torah about disabilities rights, before my board of directors no less, was just plain wrong and even offensive.
And Judy giving me a piece of her mind was one of the kindest, most wonderful things that has ever happened to me. She changed my rabbinate. She opened my heart. She helped me change my own life for the better.
I thought about all of that this week when I learned that Judy had died at the age of 75. And I think about it often in my role as a rabbi at Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life, where I regularly work with students from many marginalized communities.
Even though she spoke hard truths to me, and minced no words, on that day 13 years ago, she spoke not from anger or dismay. She spoke softly, and with grace. Her tone was non-defensive, kind and patient, reflecting that she was doing noble, even sacred work: she had just heard a rabbi who didn’t really understand what it was like to be a person with disabilities, and she had a moral obligation to speak up, even if it made that rabbi uncomfortable.
I will never forget the profoundly flawed interpretation of Torah that I taught that night. I triumphantly congratulated the Jewish tradition for its call always to remember the plight of the “stranger, the orphan and the widow” as the perfect typology for our obligation as a society with respect to disabilities rights. We must, to this day, always care for those with disabilities — those who are the less powerful members of our society through no fault of their own, I explained.
It now makes me wince to put these words in writing.
I finished my d’var Torah, with a smattering of nods of approval around the room. The board president thanked me. I was feeling satisfied with the job I did. And just as I was about to head back to my seat, a hand went up in the back of the room. It was Judy’s.
“Before we move on, I would like to say something about the rabbi’s d’var Torah. I respectfully take issue with his point. We in the disabilities community are not interested in being cared for as strangers, orphans, or widows in the way the rabbi described. We are interested in living with the same rights and opportunities as anyone else in this society. We are not interested in anyone’s pity. People with disabilities are not weaker members of a society, as the rabbi said. We are often barred from access to opportunities to express our strengths. Our hope is that leaders like our rabbi can focus on what really matters to us, on what we really are working toward in the disabilities community.”
I was dumbfounded. I just stood there in shock, at first at a total loss at what to say.
But somewhere inside, I realized in that moment that everything she said was absolutely right. I had been ignorant — even as I had just spoken under the authority of my role and my tradition. I hardly recall what I said in response to Judy. I thanked her for her important pushback to my words. I expressed appreciation for her providing a context that I had glossed over, and I clumsily thanked her a few times more as I made my way back to my seat, my tail between my legs.
After the meeting, I ran over to Judy. I apologized and expressed appreciation, and I told her that it was clear I still have a lot to learn and to understand. She smiled warmly, again with pure grace and no animosity, which were the hallmarks of her decades as a leader in the disabilities rights movement.
She told me she had an idea: she was going to invite a few friends to the synagogue to help me understand the disabilities community better.
A few weeks later, I showed up to a room in the synagogue where Judy and her friends were set to meet with me. To my utter shock, Judy’s “few friends” were about 30 to 40 people. A few were in wheelchairs. A few were blind, a few had hearing devices and other devices for various disabilities. Some had no visible disabilities but had disabilities nonetheless, as I soon found out when people went around the room and introduced themselves to me.
In preparation for the meeting, I had put together a collection of texts from the Jewish tradition that discuss people with disabilities. I distributed these texts, most of which were from the ancient world, and listened to the visitors’ reactions. By and large, there was a lot of disapproval, and even laughter at the ignorance of some texts. There were some sighs from those who had been hearing their whole lives the very same kind of condescension and discomfort that the ancient texts reflected.
It was a sobering moment for me once again. To my ignorant mind, most of these texts seemed kind, even inspirational. But to many of those assembled, these texts were just another reminder of humanity’s capacity to dehumanize those who may be different from themselves under the guise of “pity.”
Ultimately, the meeting was a positive and beautiful one. Judy and her friends were patient in helping me understand their experiences, and were so encouraging of my eagerness to learn from them, to listen deeply, and to better represent their community in my public speeches, teachings, and classes.
And beyond Judy’s extraordinary response to my ignorance, beyond her willingness to go above and beyond to ensure that one rabbi become a better human being and teacher, there was something else amazing about Judy raising her hand and speaking her truth to my power in that moment of the board meeting.
That moment, and that subsequent meeting with Judy’s friends, helped me in a way Judy couldn’t have realized.
Judy’s bravely pointing out that a rabbi could be wrong — and her friends adding to that sensibility that a tradition itself could be wrong about a whole community of people — struck me in a way that was simply uncanny.
In those days, I was very privately in the process of coming to terms with my sexuality. A few years later, that struggle would result in my publicly coming out as gay to my congregation.
But back in those early moments with Judy and her friends, I couldn’t shake a strange, inchoate sense of deep identification with the experiences of those folks. At first it made no sense because I was not disabled. But the experiences that I heard, the feelings of being “othered,” the sense of being left behind and left out of the mainstream and out of a tradition that didn’t truly “see” a group of human beings — all of these experiences were something that I inwardly and secretly felt as a gay man.
Judy Heumann had spoken up, right before my eyes, for a group that had been marginalized and thought of as ‘less-than’ for thousands of years. She broke through my own barrier of ignorance and opened my heart to an intersection between my own experience — my own humanity — and the humanity of her community.
It has been almost ten years since I came out. Since then, I have devoted a lot of my professional work to lifting up the experiences of those in the Jewish LGBTQ community. I worked and taught with Judy over the years — for the sake of opening others’ eyes to our communities’ shared experiences, along with the experiences of other previously marginalized communities.
Nowadays, I am at the helm of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University, where Judy herself spoke two years ago and was an inspiration to a student who helped make our own building more accessible.
I work closely at Princeton with students from the disabilities community and from my own LGBTQ community. I see students with disabilities thriving in ways that their forebears could not have imagined here at Princeton. The same is true for Jewish LGBTQ students, and students of color, among other groups. We still have a long way to go. But the world for all of us in our various marginalized communities, is immeasurably a more repaired place because of Judy Heumann.
Judy’s memory is already a blessing. May that blessing continue to inspire and challenge humanity for many generations to come.