Shalom Salaam — Part 1

August 20, 2012
Eugene, Oregon

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The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslev told a story of Seven Beggars, each of whom appears to have a disability, such as blindness or deafness. It turns out that they actually see and hear much better than the rest of us.

Shonna Husbands-Hankin calls on my cell phone as Wendy and I are driving south from Portland. She and her husband Rabbi Yitzhak would like us to join them, together with some other guests, for dinner. We’ve been hoping to have the chance to spend time with them while we’re in Eugene, so we’re delighted.

“That’s wonderful!” I say. “What can we bring? Some wine?”

“We have a house guest, Hanin, a Muslim woman from Egypt, so we’re not having wine,” she says. “Can you bring something else? And by the way, she’s deaf, doesn’t understand English, and is here on a conference. I’ll explain later.”

Six hours later Wendy and I show up at their doorstep with blueberries, blackberries, radish sprouts and kale salad. We hug Yitz and Shonna. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. Yitz is Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel here, and has long been a leader in interfaith work. He’s also a student of my teacher Reb Shlomo. Shonna is a well-known Jewish artist.

They introduce us to Hanin. She’s here on a conference sponsored by Mobility International USA . MIUSA’s mission is to empower people with disabilities to achieve their human rights through international exchange and international development. Their vision is a world in which the human rights, citizenship, contribution and potential of all people with disabilities are respected and celebrated.

Hanin is a woman of medium height, shining eyes and a radient, child-like impulsive smile, wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf. I smile and say “Salaam alaikum!” I don’t attempt to shake her hand because I assume that religious Muslim women, like their Orthodox Jewish counterparts, are not supposed to touch men. So I’m surprised when she reaches out with both hands to take mine. Then she lets go, gestures with both hands up toward heaven, and widens her gesture to include everyone in the room. I’m even more surprised when she, a deaf person who doesn’t understand English, speaks. The sound is strange, high-pitched, other worldly. The words are hard for me to distinguish. But the meaning is unmistakable. “The peace from God is for everyone.”

Hanin is one of 27 women from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South America whom MIUSA has selected and paid for to come to Eugene. At home these women are typically from cultures where even in the best of circumstances, their freedom of movement, and freedom to make their own choices in life, are quite limited. With the added family shame of a disability, they and tens of thousands of their peers are typically kept behind closed doors, isolated from the rest of the world, silent, invisible. Here in Eugene, they are walking and wheel-chairing through the streets, riding on public buses, visiting the University and interacting with faculty and students, visiting the forests, even doing ropes courses.

As a supporter of the program, Yitz has facilitated other women to also stay with families from the temple. For Hanin and her fellow Muslim women from the Middle East, this is the first time any of them have any contact with a Jewish person. All they know about Jews is what they have been told at home. So they’ve have been blown away, to the point of being somewhat disoriented, by the kindness and warmth of their hosts. And their hosts have been blown away by the courage and idealism of these women.

(To be continued.)

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