Removing the Stumbling Blocks
It is a tremendous honor to be called to the bimah (elevated platform in a synagogue) for an aliyah (going up) and to recite the Torah blessings. Even more esteemed is reading or chanting aloud from the actual Torah scroll. However, for people with disabilities, these honors often come with stumbling blocks — poor accessibility to the bimah, no amplification for people with hearing loss, or lack of large-type or braille text. Many synagogues have made great strides to remove physical barriers by installing ramps and lifts for wheelchairs, but other barriers are more challenging.
The Torah is very clear about our obligation to people with disabilities. Pirke Avot says, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” and Leviticus 19:14 says, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Today, through increased awareness and new technologies, exciting things are happening to make Torah more accessible to all. Here are a few we want to tell you about:
Atlanta’s Illustrated Torah
Nearly ten years ago, the Atlanta community raised funds for several Illustrated Torah scrolls that give children and adults an opportunity to interact with the weekly Torah portion in a visual way, where reading is not required. It’s a tremendous tool for people who learn differently. The 54 weekly parshiot (Torah portions) are presented through the work of artist Michal Meron. Atlanta’s Illustrated Torah scrolls can be found at Congregation Kehilat Chaim, The Temple, Ahavath Achim Synagogue, and at the MJCCA.
Braille Torah Scroll
In Fort Wayne, IN, Rabbi Lenny Sark (who happens to be the father-in-law of Atlanta Rabbi Brad Levenberg) is making amazing progress on the creation of a braille Torah scroll, imprinted on actual animal skin parchment, that meets Jewish halachic (legal) requirements. Another of those requirements is that when one reads Torah, it should not be memorized, it must be read from the scroll —an obstacle for people who are blind. Rabbi Sark has discovered that cowhide can accept the braille raised dots and has proven that the dots are not damaged when the scroll is rolled. Step by step he has developed a way to create slates and styluses in halachically acceptable materials, that create text in Hebrew Braille. Learn more about the braille Torah project here. Learn more here: www.rabbisark.org.
Braille Torah with Trope Marks
This winter, in Washington, DC, Batya Sperling-Miller celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Ohev Shalom, the oldest orthodox synagogue in the city. Batya, who is blind, and whose family is observant, spent months learning her Torah and Haftorah portion, like all b’nai mitzvah girls. On her big day, Batya stood on the bimah with pride, reading and chanting from a braille text. She mastered the Torah trope (melody) with help from a computer program that inserts indicators of a change in melody into the braille text. There are about 20 different tropes in Torah cantillation, each with a distinct set of notes. Thanks to Batya’s family, who reached out to an Israeli friend software engineer to insert the trope change markers, there is now a program that could potentially transform the Torah-reading experience for visually impaired people. “Every single person in the synagogue showed up to hear Batya read, and we all felt we were in the presence of greatness,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi at Ohev Sholom.”