Sarah Imhoff is an associate professor of Jewish studies and religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research asks questions about how bodies and their attributes, such as gender, race, and ability, shape and are shaped by religion. She is author of Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism (Indiana University Press).
This year, people who lived alone had Passover seders without the physical presence of friends and family. A profoundly social holiday, one that celebrates the movement from bondage to freedom with the telling of a communal story, looked different this year. Lonely, for some. Most churches also have empty pews, an unhappy sight for many Christians. Religious gatherings can remind us of the importance of the presence of others. Loneliness and isolation not only feel bad. They can also create or compound physical and mental health problems. There are times when all humans need other humans, physically and emotionally.
Judaism, as a tradition and a practice, particularly emphasizes this theological and social need for others. For instance, a minyan, or prayer quorum, consists of ten adults (or ten men, depending on the community), and these group prayers hold more theological weight. God gives certain blessings to the community as a whole rather than just the individual, prayers from a minyan are more effective than solo prayers, and God is more intimately present with a minyan gathered. Some prayers are only recited in the presence of a minyan. There is a rich theological tradition and language for the importance of people’s presence together with one another—so much so that this presence together also brings the divine presence.
People with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable people in this time of COVID-19, for reasons having to do with medical care and decision-making, but also for reasons having to do with social isolation. Adults with disabilities are more likely to be unmarried. They are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic classes, and thus less likely to have access to the computers and high-speed internet that have become essential for many kinds of human contact.
Others have a different problem with isolation: that they cannot be left alone, and thus risk their own health and that of their caregivers. In addition to friends and family, professional caregivers “are faced with their own agencies’ directives, heeding the pleas of public health authorities, protecting themselves and their families, and fulfilling their responsibilities to people they care for,” Andrew Pulrang writes. “At times like these, there are no easy answers.”
In addition to being a vulnerable group, however, people with disabilities can also provide insight and practical advice on the problems that are new to many non-disabled people. And so we should ask ourselves not only about how we should collectively care for the medical and social needs of people with disabilities during this time, but also how those of us who are non-disabled can people learn from people with disabilities.
The Disability Justice Culture Club, a small group of disabled Californians, has been making their own hand sanitizer as part of emergency kits they hand out to people living in homeless encampments. They point out that they already have many of the skills and knowledge that so many other U.S. Americans scrambled to learn: how different infections spread, how to wear a protective mask properly, and how to wash your hands properly. “We call it crip—crippled—wisdom,” one member told the news outlet KQED.
Want to learn good hygiene tips for cleaning your house to minimize your risk of exposure to COVID-19? Ask someone who has a compromised immune system and has been cleaning that way for years.
Want to learn how to feel more connected when you can’t leave the house? Learn from someone who lives with chronic pain or chronic illness and often spends time at home for extended periods. Rabbi Eliot Kukla writes: “Sheltering in place has somewhat broken down the isolation of illness, as the rest of the world learns the tools sick people have always had for staying connected from home.”
Want to know how to understand that underlying anxiety that always seems to be with you now? Listen to someone with an anxiety disorder. Sociologist Cate Taylor points to the ways that people with anxiety disorders can be prescient and excellent planners: “So those of us with anxiety, let’s raise our hands proudly. We have an adaptation, not a disorder. In this global emergency, we are a precious resource.”
Frustrated that your movement depends on the rules and schedules beyond your control? Wondering what to make of the disorienting way you are experiencing the passage of time? Read the wonderful Julia Watts Belser, who uses a wheelchair, on the topic.
Some of these people use Jewish tradition as they articulate their experiences and social knowledge about physical health, isolation, anxiety, or limitations. Kukla uses the seder plate as a reminder of both the presence of people with disabilities and the fact that each of us must now carefully “tend to their energy in this time of shelter.” Belser uses Jewish ideas about Shabbat to help think about how uneven the passage and qualities of time can feel.
But all of these people, whether or not they use Jewish concepts to explain their thoughts, offer insights into experiences that may be new to many non-disabled people. The COVID-19 virus and response have made clear how people with disabilities are more likely to be vulnerable, but also how they can lead the way.