Sukkot, Ushpizin, and Disability Inclusion

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Friday, September 21, 2018

[Written for Chabad.org, ]

As we approach our Creator throughout the month of Elul, coronate Him on Rosh Hashanah and cry out to him during Yom Kippur, we turn increasingly inward to reflect upon who we are and who we’d like to become. We strive to draw closer to G‑d, change for the better, treat everyone with respect, and start the new year with newly found clarity.

And then, just fiveWe strive to start the new year with newly found clarity days after Yom Kippur, we emerge from the recesses of our individual and collective souls and live in sukkot, makeshift shelters, for seven (or eight) days.

We dwell in those temporary private spaces each year while we prepare our newly transformedselves to transition into our permanent homes.

The tension between privacy or internality and exposure or externality is physically expressed in the construction of our sukkahs. We were given very specific measurements and dimensions.

For example, a sukkah must have at least two full walls as well as a partial wall and be within certain minimum and maximum heights. The sechach (the unprocessed roofing material harvested from the ground) must provide more shade than light, but not be too thick for the rain to penetrate. Some also personalize the sukkah by decorating it in their own distinctive style.

We open the doors of our sukkot to many guests and together we eat, learn, sing, and schmooze.

In fact, each night we formally welcome one of seven notable guests (ushpizin) inside. They are the seven founders and leaders of the Jewish people, beginning with our forefather Abraham, who epitomized the quality of hospitality. He and his wife Sarah actively sought to invite wayfarers into their tent to feed them and make them comfortable.

“Sukkah-hopping” is another time-honored activity where we informally drop into each other’s sukkot for a bit of schmoozing, a bite of a cake, and a “l’chaim.”

Hosting sukkah-hoppers is a means by which we extend the private domain to the public and further nurtures our bonds to people in our communities.

But are we really building community when not everyone can actually get inside our beautiful sukkahs? Do we consider guests with disabilities when we buy and put up our sukkot?

I can easily say not always. I am an apartment-dwelling wheelchair user. During Sukkot, my husband and I rely upon friends to host us for at least some of the holiday meals. There have been several times when we arrived at a friend’s sukkah only to find the doorway too narrow to enter. Thank G‑d, I have been able to walk a few steps with support and sit on a regular chair. I am quite uncomfortable drawing attention to myself as I less than gracefully shuffle to the chair. Now that I’m older, walking even those few steps is much more difficult and may one day be impossible. I often think about wheelchair-using friends who cannot walk at all. Are they able to visit their friends’ sukkot?

During the intermediary days of Sukkot, my husband and I eat out at restaurants that have sukkahs in order to fulfill the mitzvah. We only eat at restaurants that welcome us with wide unobstructed doorways and easy navigation around and between tables. Restaurants owners, please know that ensuring disability access to your restaurants and sukkot can bring in more business.

To welcome a wheelchair user into a sukkah, the doorway and entrances must also be wheelchair accessible. If you are inviting a Deaf person, you’ll want to learn the sign language for the words “welcome,” “excuse me,” and “thank you for coming,” and possibly prepare name tags for accompanying hosts and guests. For people with low vision you’ll want to offer large-print bentchers.

and entrances must also be wheelchair accessible. If you are inviting a Deaf person, you’ll want to learn the sign language for the words “welcome,” “excuse me,” and “thank you for coming,” and possibly prepare name tags for accompanying hosts and guests. For people with low vision you’ll want to offer large-print bentchers.

If you are in the market for a new sukkah, please tell the retailer that you want one with a 32” doorway and no bars or steps at doorway thresholds. If every customer would order a wheelchair accessible sukkah, retailers would likely convey the specifications to the manufacturers and one day ALL sukkot will be accessible to everyone.

Like Abraham and Sarah, may each of us strive to make our sukkot prototypes of quintessential hospitality, and may we bring accessibility and inclusiveness into our permanent homes, synagogues, yeshivas, and mikvas as well.

For more information and help, please contact Yad HaChazakah – The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (access@yadempowers.org, 646-723-3955).

 


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