“Can I get a ride with you to the upcoming board meeting?” my friend Sharon messaged me on Facebook.
Sharon lives 5 blocks from me. I was happy to have her company on the ride to our local synagogue, Bet Shalom.
“Where’s Metro Mobility?”
Metro Mobility is para-transit for eligible people with disabilities, which provides door-to-door service.
Sharon doesn’t ride in many cars. She uses a battery powered wheelchair and relies on Metro Mobility to live her independent life. She lives in a first ring suburb and Metro Mobility will pick her up and take her to any place in the service area.
The problem with getting to the board meeting is that Bet Shalom is six blocks south of the service area.
Sharon only finds out on the day of the meeting if she has a ride. Board meetings run from 7 to 9pm. She has to be ready to leave home at 5pm and may wait until 11pm to go home.
Sharon joined Bet Shalom 12 years ago, when the congregation moved to a new accessible building. She wanted to become involved in the synagogue and she wanted a place that was accessible to her in her motorized wheelchair.
Sharon’s dream of belonging, that essential hallmark of inclusion, motivated her to become active. She attends Shabbat services, Torah study, and congregational events. She learned to read Hebrew, chant the Torah portion and celebrated her bat mitzvah. Sharon is co-chair of the Inclusion Committee where she is an inspiring leader. In May 2013 she was elected to the Board.
Sharon brought the transportation matter to the Board. Members wanted to write letters of support to Metro Mobility and some offered rides. But we all knew letter writing wouldn’t change the service area. Getting rides meant Sharon had to use her manual chair and be pushed around the synagogue.
In the end, Sharon told me that she wouldn’t be going to the meeting. She was on her way to a family bat mitzvah in Phoenix and would miss the meeting.
I wondered why it was easier to get to Phoenix than to get to the synagogue.
We have identified the barrier so many people face. It is not only their problem to solve. When a Jewish community authentically commits to inclusion, transportation becomes a shared concern. How do people get into a welcoming community when they must travel outside of established service areas to their destinations?
We must know this: Jews with disabilities must have access to the same opportunities in Jewish life as their peers.
Changing attitudes, raising awareness, and welcoming people are all important for Jewish organizations to do. If we are honest with ourselves, we must concern ourselves with transportation, supporting peoples’ literal journeys to and from the community.
We will gladly drive Sharon to Board meetings and push her in her manual chair. I cannot help but wonder how many others want to participate in Jewish life but cannot journey there.
Shelly Christensen, MA is the founder of Inclusion Innovations, which supports Jewish institutions and communities through training, consultation and design of inclusion initiatives. She is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, partnering with the Ruderman Family Foundation; author of the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities; and Program Manager of the award-winning Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities. Shelly is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism Adjunct Faculty.