Sunday, 15 January 2012

#SpartacusReport Inspires a Sermon

With huge thanks to Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers of the West London Synagogue of British Jews in Central London for allowing us to reproduce yesterday's sermon in full. And Mazel tov to Maya!

Hearing the voice of Moses

Maya mentioned in her dvar torah that she has special needs –though I would argue her sense of an inability to sing is only a disability if Maya believes it is! It’s often said that we in fact all have special needs of one sort or another, we are just affected by them in different ways. Our limitations are often placed on us by the world we live in, but it is not uncommon for us to place limitations on ourselves, through our own fear and doubt. Moses demonstrates this perfectly in this weeks Torah portion, trying to convince God (not just his parents or a teacher) that he really can’t do the task he has been called to. He has a speech impediment, which midrash tells us was caused when Moses had placed hot coals in his mouth as a child[1]. But we can learn a huge amount from Shemot about supporting those who may need more support to achieve their full potential than others. If we are all given the right encouragement and guidelines, and perhaps more importantly resources, just as Moses is by God, we can overcome much that life has thrown at us.
And of course it isn’t just this week’s portion which tells us of the Jewish imperative to support the vulnerable in our society, there’s the obvious quote from Leviticus: “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” (19:14). But there are other imperatives too; one of my favourites comes from Isaiah (56:5) talking about the Temple: “For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people”. We need to not just enable, but ensure our houses of worship, and the world around us, is open to all, not just those we see.
In starting to think about these issues I sent a twitter message on Thursday to a tweeter known as @BendyGirl who I follow and have learnt a huge amount from. She suffers from a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and blogs, in her words “about the highs & lows of life lived with joints that dislocate as frequently as the British weather changes”. To leave the house she needs an electric wheelchair, however to qualify for one on the NHS you have to be wheelchair bound in your own home for 6 months. At home it is good for her health to move as much as possible, so in walking at home, she is precluding her opportunity to leave the house. She was incredibly helpful and suggested in response to my unsolicited online message that I just give her a call. Which I did.
It is clear that our responsibility, Jewish or otherwise, to support the vulnerable in our society is not going well. You might even be surprised to know that members of our own congregation are struggling through the benefits system, and despite already living hand to mouth, are facing cuts in Disability Living Allowance and Employment and support allowance. Proving you need the benefits is becoming harder and harder, with those who are wheelchair bound, likely in the new benefits which will replace the DLA to be qualified as able to work as well as you or me, as long as they can propel the chair themselves.
We all know cuts and savings need to be found, and it’s important to note this is not a coalition problem, these cuts began to be made under the previous government. But I was struck by something BendyGirl (whose real name is Kaliya) made. In Nazi Germany, well before there were Jewish pogroms and camps, disabled and mentally ill German citizens were rounded up, and it was for them that camps were initially developed. And how were the rest of the population convinced this was ok? They were told that these people were an economic drain on the nation. Increasingly, as Kaliya sees it, our media has been spearheading a campaign to convince us that the disabled are work shy benefit cheats. In the last 18 months campaigners have noticed a significant increase in hate crimes towards the disabled, and they are no longer referred to as ‘spaz’ when attacked, but as ‘benefit scrounging scum’. In fact, only half a percent of all disability claimants have been found to be fraudulent, and yet to combat these false claims, benefits are being cut by, at the most optimistic estimate, 20%. Deuteronomy (15:7) says “If there be among you a needy person, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand”. We need to start hearing not only the encouragement of Deuteronomy, and indeed of today’s portion, but the voice of those like Kaliya, who feel invisible (especially if they don’t have a wheelchair or white stick) and incredibly vulnerable.
Disability campaigners are, on the whole, themselves physically struggling, sick, and isolated. Moses’ inability to express himself clearly is a useful metaphor for this, he had his brother, Aaron, to help him along the way, and he became the greatest leader of the Israelites. With this kind of support, three defeats against the welfare reform bill were achieved this week in the house of Lords (cavod to my senior colleague in the corner). Yet these cuts have been happening for a while, and will continue if more isn’t said and done.
Maya, I know you are an incredible ally and support to your mum, and many in the community are carers and supporters just like you. I have seen and worked with some of you here as you struggled with eviction because benefits couldn’t be processed when they were needed. As a community we have felt the cuts in social care and allowances biting, and have this month been joined in our professional team by a Social Care worker – Jo, who is helping us deal with the sheer volume of work that is coming our way now that social services are not doing their bit, or at least helping us to navigate the incredibly time consuming beurocracy. What I hear from Kaliya, and from many other voices, particularly on the web, where the housebound often have their only outlet, is that people aren’t making enough noise about this. As part of her condition, Kaliya’s larynx had collapsed when we spoke, making the parallel between her and Moses even more stark – she, and so many others, need our voices, so that they can cling onto the meagre benefits they have now. We need to support those that we can, and be the voice for those who can’t raise theirs up loud enough. Even if this doesn’t affect you directly, it is still our responsibility to speak up for others.
And as a community we are also being given the chance to come together to work to change how accessible we are through the Judith Trusts Inclusion Campaign which is working with us to ensure we can reach out and include, and I hope more of you will want to become involved in this training as well.
Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) says that humans make coins, all from the same mould, and they all come out the same. God, however, makes humans each from the same mould as the first human, yet each of us is unique. We all have unique skills and abilities, as well as challenges and disabilities. Maya, you confessed to us what you struggle with, but you also demonstrated what you are fantastic at. Everyone wants to contribute, but not everyone can do so in the same way or to the same extent. I hope we can all learn from you about how to be a support and a friend. I must confess, as a sister of someone with special needs, I’m angry at what is potentially being lost both in care and in human dignity, but as a Jew, and as a British citizen, who knows we can do better, I am angrier, and I want us all to lift up our voices, in remembrance of Moses who couldn’t.
Cain Yehi Ratzon
May this be God’s will
Venomar Amen.

[1] Ex. Rabbah 1:26