As Jewish Disabilities and Inclusion Awareness month comes to an end, Rabbi Lauren Tuchman wants Washington’s Jewish community to think bigger.
“We want to bring the inclusion conversation into the broadest frame possible,” Tuchman says. “LGBT inclusion, inclusion for Jews of color, inclusion for Jews with disabilities. Because with a lot of the issues around welcoming spaces, there are plenty of overlaps.”
Tuchman herself is blind. So being a part of a small community trying to find a welcoming home in a bigger one is a dynamic she knows a lot about.
And whether it’s disability status, sexual orientation or something else, Tuchman, 33, wants to shift the conversation happening in synagogues. She says that too often congregations will view the investments necessary to make certain groups feel welcomed in terms of numbers and return.
If a synagogue is considering making its building more handicapped accessible, or purchasing religious texts for the blind, the decision is sometimes framed in terms of how many additional people that will bring in. Tuchman says that’s the wrong framing.
“They’re not really sure how to accommodate a blind person. It’s easiest to say no because they’re not sure what the return on investment will be,” Tuchman says. “From a business perspective, it makes sense. Supply and demand. But from a spiritual perspective, the message it’s sending is, ‘If your needs aren’t that common, we’re not going to invest in that.’”
Tuchman earned her rabbinic ordination last year from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and has since been speaking around the country, delivering the message about investing in inclusiveness. She’s also been doing inclusiveness work at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington as an attendee and working as the rabbi for Avodah DC: The Jewish Service Corps.
Along her journey to becoming a rabbi, Tuchman says she encountered a mixed bag of attitudes toward people with disabilities.
According to the CDC, roughly one in four Americans live with a disability that affects major life activities. There are about 1.1 million blind people in the United States, according to the American Action Fund for Blind Children
She makes clear that she’s not interested in speaking on behalf of the entire disability community, or even the blind Jewish community. She wants to speak only from her own experience.
Tuchman credits her Hillel at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania with increasing her commitment to Judaism. Seeking a more observant life, she went to Jewish Theological Seminary, to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish studies, thinking she’d be a teacher. Instead, she found she was more interested in preaching than teaching.
“I was less interested in the academic study of Judaism and more interested in bringing my love of Judaism out into the community,” she says.
Tuchman had access to her own Braille embosser in rabbinical school, making the printing of Braille texts relatively easy. But it’s expensive equipment, and she knows that for most Jews wondering if they have a place in synagogue, texts for the blind are much harder to come by, and few congregations seek them out.
“People with disabilities are often seen as a series of accommodations. I know that’s also a big problem in the deaf community. Routinely, people say, ‘Oh, we can’t afford that,’” Tuchman says.
“Oftentimes, people don’t see the need, and they don’t know whether the investment will pay off. We need to be comfortable with not knowing, and in our community we tend to really not like that.”
On March 3, Tuchman will deliver a keynote address at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, followed by an interactive discussion on inclusivity in the Jewish community. 10 a.m., Beth El Hebrew Congregation, 3830 Seminary Road, Alexandria; free; information at bethelhebrew.org.