How Judaism deals with disabilities

By Cindy Mindell ~

BRIDGEPORT – Twelve years ago, Rabbi Lynne F. Landsberg suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident on an icy street in Washington, D.C. She was in a coma for six weeks, emerging only to find that she had lost basic abilities. She couldn’t read, walk, or even speak.
Eight months later, after relearning the English alphabet, Landsberg took the next step, sounding out the two Hebrew words on her son’s t-shirt.
“I could read them and I knew it was the name of a place, but I couldn’t remember where it was,” she recalls. “I called my colleague, Rabbi David Saperstein, and asked, ‘Where in Israel is Boca Raton?’”

Rabbi Lynne F. Landsberg

Now the senior advisor on disability issues for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Landsberg will be scholar-in-residence at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport on May 4 and 5, presenting “A Focus on Ability and Disability: Access to a Spiritual Life.”
Rabbi James Prosnit of B’nai Israel first met Landsberg in 1976 in Jerusalem, where the two were first-year rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“Funny and witty and very smart, Lynne had one of those naturally engaging personalities that drew you near and made you know from the very first meeting that she was going to make a difference in Jewish life,” Prosnit says. “She was a rising star! Today, she is one of our movement’s proud stars and has definitely made a difference, even if it is not the one we may first have envisioned.”
Landsberg received a masters of divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 1976 and was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1981. She served as associate rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City and then as rabbi of Temple House of Israel in Staunton, Va. and Congregation Beth El in Harrisonburg, Va. In Washington, D.C., she worked for eight years as associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and more than two years as the Union for Reform Judaism regional director of the Mid-Atlantic Council.
A year after her injury, Religious Action Center director Rabbi David Saperstein asked Landsberg to return to work. “It was an awesome risk for him because many people with traumatic brain injuries aren’t offered jobs,” Landsberg says. “It took me months before I felt ready, and then only as a volunteer four hours a week. But the chance to think and learn and serve the Jewish community again was very important to me. To work in that challenging, Jewish, and supportive atmosphere was the best therapy I ever had.”
Landsberg went on to become founding chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (CCAR) Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion. She is co-founder and co-chair of the DC Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of national Jewish religious movements and organizations advocating for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities. She established the Union for Reform Judaism’s Access to Lifelong Jewish Learning Task Force and is a member of the DC Statewide Independent Living Council and the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition steering committee.
“Before my injury, I belonged to one minority that was cohesive, strong and articulate – the American Jewish community. Now I belong to a second minority that is often unseen and unheard – persons with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteed accessibility to public places. But nothing demands accessibility to the human heart. In addition to working on legislation, I want to help the Jewish community and others understand that people with disabilities are people first, and disabled second. I want to change the way the able-bodied perceive disability.”
Landsberg has a long history of advocacy work, having served as director of the URJ Commission on Inter-religious Affairs and on the CCAR Justice, Peace and Religious Liberties Committee. She was vice-chair for the Interfaith Coalition on Justice and Peace, a coalition of national religious bodies influencing public policy. For 10 years, she was on the board of directors of the U.S. Inter-religious Committee for Peace in the Middle East. She served on the board of directors and was the national spokesperson for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an inter-religious organization dedicated to safeguarding the constitutional guarantee for reproductive freedom.
“Lynne remains one of the funniest, warmest, and most decent human beings you will ever meet,” says Prosnit. “She says that while she lost a lot as a result of her accident, two things never left her: her sense of humor and her love of Judaism. Her incredible and courageous work to live her life fully is guided by her passion and respect for all people, and her belief that she must continue to make a difference.”
“A Focus on Ability and Disability: Access to a Spiritual Life” with Rabbi Lynne Landsberg: Friday-Saturday, May 4-5, Congregation B’nai Israel, 2710 Park Ave., Bridgeport | Program info: (203) 336-1858

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