On a typical hot and muggy October evening, even the mother of all traffic snarls didn’t deter 22 mainly estrogen- depleted, I.Q.-laden Houston women from participating in a Lilith salon focusing on special needs in the Jewish community. Hosted by Julia Wolf Mazow, the salon conversation was led by Sandra Block and Joan Alexander; each had played a critical role in developing the Alexander Institute of Jewish Family Service- Houston, to addresses the needs of people with developmental or functional limitations. Block had chaired the committee that uncovered the community’s needs; Alexander is a philanthropist and activist whose interest brought the idea to reality in 2007.
Just planning the salon gathering was a consciousness- raiser, since even finding a home with an accessible front door turned out to be a challenge. Concern about physical accessibility in the Jewish community triggered other suggestions — ramps, of course, but also other accommodations we had not previously considered, such as having mezuzot lower on doorposts so those in wheelchairs can touch them. Of course not all special needs are physical. And the evening’s conversation turned on needs often invisible in Jewish communities. One participant in the evening’s Lilith salon (which has been meeting regularly since 2005) spoke of her autistic grandson and the dearth of local resources. And one woman’s mother had started a foundation in her Texas home town for special needs Jewish children to receive specialized bar and bat mitzvah preparation so they too could celebrate these milestones.
What about activism on a systemic level? A documentary filmmaker related taking up the plight of a severely compromised young man who lost most of his state-funded care when he turned 21; she took the young man’s fight to the Texas legislature. The talk moved from needs to the issue of stigma. Another salon participant recounted an incident during Yom Kippur services, when a bizarre-behaving man alarmed the congregation with a frightening outburst. The next day the rabbi, using the situation the worshippers had just experienced, called for compassion, understanding, tolerance, and inclusion for those with special needs.
Every Lilith salon feels special. But on this night, we ended our meeting with a Schehecheyanu. Each of us was inspired in some small way to be part of efforts to embrace all, no matter their ability and to ensure all voices be heard in and contribute to the richness of community.