An Aliyah For All! Or, A Ramp Is Not Enough: Toward An Accessible Bima
07/03/2013 - 12:49
Paula Fox
Paula Fox
Paula Fox

Editor's Note: With this essay, New Normal contributor Paula Fox made us realize that a ramp to the bima is a wonderful thing, but not enough. The bima itself can and should be made more accessible: to people with disabilities, to children, to the short, to the tall. With the publication of Paula's post, we are launching the New Normal's Bima Project, which will aim to work with a synagogue to create and install such a bima. We look forward to sharing the Project's progress with you and of course invite your questions, suggestions and thoughts.

Until recently, I never thought of myself as a Torah reader.

In the conservative synagogue in Baltimore where I grew up, girls had a Friday night Bat Mitzvah, reading a random Haftorah learned by memory from a tape. In Minneapolis, I have been a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation for over forty years. Although I have been involved in many committees and study groups, I never considered reading Torah. After my spinal cord injury in 1975, such an activity didn’t seem relevant or possible. At the old synagogue, the bima was not even accessible to a wheelchair. The “new” synagogue, now 18 years old, has a ramp to the bima, but the bima itself still poses challenges to Torah readers in wheelchairs.

Adath has many congregants who read Torah, and I always admired their skill. We are also fortunate to have an excellent teacher, Todd Werner, who has offered Torah reading classes to adults for 18 years. Todd encouraged me to take his class, and finally this year, I did. For the class itself, being in a wheelchair made no difference. The three students in the class sat around a table with Todd and learned the tropes. At home, I practiced on my bed with my Tikkun, the sheet of tropes with their musical notation, and a keyboard app on my iPad. It was much harder work than I anticipated but extremely gratifying to see tangible progress from week to week. The process was much like putting together pieces of a puzzle to make a finished product.

Our grand debut occurred on the Shabbat just after Shavuot. The three of us shared one aliyah, each of us reading only three lines. But that was challenging and anxiety-provoking enough, and we each over-leaned our parts, so the reading went smoothly for all of us. The issue for me was how to see the Torah from my wheelchair since the Torah reading table is above my line of vision. Todd simply said that we’d work it out and never implied that it was any trouble.

At first, he considered having a lower table next to the regular table and moving the Torah when I read. In the end, he and one of my classmates held the Torah at a level I could see while I read. The only problem with that was that people in the synagogue could not see me, hidden behind the Torah. Someone commented that it looked like the Torah was reading itself. 

Some people liked that effect, thinking the reader is just a conduit for sharing God’s word and does not need to be seen.  I myself would prefer to be visible, just like all the other readers.  We are investigating whether there is any type of adjustable table that could be used in the future. I do hope to read Torah more, for it is an incredibly thrilling experience to see the actual Torah scroll, with ink on parchment, just as it has been passed down for thousands of years – truly a sense of continuity and connection.

Paula Fox received a B.A. in psychology from Brandeis University in 1968 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from University of Minnesota in 1972. For two years, she worked at Hennepin County Medical Center in an interdisciplinary clinic evaluating young children with complex learning and behavior problems.  After recovering from a spinal cord injury in 1975, she spent over 30 years working as a school psychologist in Robbinsdale Area Schools until retiring in 2009. When Shelly Christensen established the Minneapolis Jewish Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, Fox served on her community advisory committee. She is married to Norman Fox and has one daughter, age 30.

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My synagogue has a high bima with steps and no good way to install a ramp. We also have an aging congregation of various abilities and disabilities. We hit on the idea of having an amud with uneven legs that we could set up on the lower steps. A wheelchair or walker can fit under it. When someone who can't make it up the steps has an aliyah or leyns, we bring the sefer down to the small amud. Several congregants have said that they find this process very moving in a "It is not far from you" [Deut. 30:12] sort of way. The day before its first use, a congregant brought in a stunning embroidered mappa which he said was from his parents' synagogue, the last one in Beirut. It fits the amud perfectly! He had not heard about the amud, but was so moved by it and the bashert / serendipity of the mappa fitting, that he sponsored the entire cost.