Impact Feature Issue on Sexuality and People with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities

The Story of Robert and Julie


Rabbi Norman Cohen  of Bet Shalom Congregation, Minnetonka, Minnesota

From a religious perspective, it is always important to ask, "What does God want?" Not that we have the ability to answer without doubt, but as people of faith we can keep that in mind as a guiding principle for the decisions we make and the values we seek to live out.

As we wonder about the blessings of life, including companionship, sexuality, and lifelong commitment, we have to ask, "Are those blessings reserved only for a select group or are they universal goals and privileges to which all, to the extent of their abilities, are entitled?" I believe that we must look for ways to extend these opportunities to all of God's creation to the extent that it is possible. That is where religious organizations and institutions can provide assistance and attitudinal influence not only to individuals with disabilities, but to those who live with them.

The path of life presents all of us with opportunities to pause and take a photograph that enters our life album. These pictures are only moments but they can mean so much more when we see them as markers of our growth and transition, which is, bottom line, what life is. Judaism has long recognized that the ceremonies and rituals in which we engage are tremendously wise ways to help us pause and savor each of those moments. Indeed, they teach us that every moment in life has the potential for holiness and sacredness. From birth to death, from the significant milestones we pass to the sharing of our grief and joy, life cycle rituals are opportunities to take account of life's richness and our human ability to enhance those moments to their greatest potential. This is something that should have no asterisk for a person with a disability.

I have been privileged to serve a congregation for nearly three decades in which we have, in numerous ways, sought to live out a commitment to including children and adults with disabilities in all areas of congregational life. But it was not until seven years ago that I had the opportunity to be involved in a situation that has remained embedded in my mind and heart as one of the most significant personal interactions I have been blessed to have in my rabbinate.

Robert, a man in his 40's who has developmental disabilities, had been part of our community for many years. His sister and brother-in-law belonged to our congregation and his parents, who live in another city far away, had made arrangements for him to be part of our community. He would come and visit me from time to time, attend services on occasion (much like most congregants!), and would make special visits to share significant moments in his life, such as when he got a job or won a medal in the Special Olympics. He was so proud of those medals and the sports in which he had engaged to win them. He was filled with enthusiasm every time he started a new job. His life was filled with blessings, in spite of the fact that he faced severe challenges every day. He definitely struggled, but he had a perseverance that enabled him never to give up and inspired others around him as well.

But nothing could match the excitement and enthusiasm he felt on the day he walked into Temple to tell me he had met someone very special. Her name was Julie. She worked at the same place as he did and they had taken a liking to each other. One thing led to the next and they were in love. When he brought her to the Temple to introduce her to everyone who was there, we were all moved by their affection and caring for each other. They held hands, and smiled constantly. She wanted to study about Judaism so that they could have even more in common. Most important to her was to have her own "Hebrew name," her official connection.

They started coming to services and classes frequently, always sitting in the front row so that they could have a good view of things, and the rest of the congregation noticed them and reached out to them at our post-prayer gatherings of conversation and food (we are a Jewish community, after all!).

I will always remember the day they came to talk with me about getting married. I must admit that because of my own preconceived notions, prejudice, and ignorance I wondered whether this was possible. Should people in such situations get married? In truth, I must have thought: Is this too much for me to handle?

In spite of that, I proceeded. As I do with all couples, I invited them to meet with me privately in my study and we began a long discussion that led to interaction with their therapist, a wonderful, caring person who proposed a plan for the four of us to meet in pre-marital sessions to set goals and carefully consider each step along the way. We arranged for them to spend longer periods of time together to see if they could manage what they dreamed of. They each had helpful social workers and aides who visited with them to offer appropriate assistance and guidance. They sought from us and received approval.

This couple was just like every other couple in so many ways. They wanted to make their marriage just right. They wanted to please the other. They wanted to support one another. They glowed. They held hands and were very comfortable being appropriately affectionate in public. When we met, they were eager to talk about what they did when they were together. They each had their responsibilities and together made a complementary team in facing their daily tasks. They had their lists. There was a kind of innocent joy that all couples seek in their love, but it came so naturally to them. They were as happy as any couple I have ever known or married.

On Memorial Day 2004, at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota, Robert and Julie stood under thechuppah, the decorated canopy that symbolizes the Jewish home that a couple establishes on their wedding day, and celebrated with their family and friends, many of whom, because of their own disabilities, had never been invited to be a bridesmaid or groomsman before. Never have I witnessed such pure joy, love, and happiness.

They continued to come to services and always sat in the front, eager to come up to the pulpit afterward and talk with me, reminding me that this was the spot on which they stood when they married. We clergy often talk about the power of ceremony and ritual and how they can serve through recall as sustenance. This was the clearest example of that.

They loved going on car trips and travelled together, she reading the map and signs, he driving. Together they were a fabulous team. To celebrate their first anniversary, they had made arrangements to have a special anniversary dinner, go swimming, and spend the night at the hotel where they had their wedding party. Their bags were packed early in anticipation. In their excitement they decided to go out for ice cream early in the morning of their big day. Tragically, on that morning their bliss ended. It was not because of a failure in their ability to maintain their relationship and caring, but in a terrible car accident in which they were hit by a driver under the influence. Julie was killed. After only one year of marriage Robert lost his beloved. They had worked so hard to achieve their goals and had created what could only be called a marriage filled with blessing and joy. Their marriage was, in my opinion, exactly what God wants.

Today, I often think of Robert and Julie when I meet with any couple contemplating marriage. Sometimes I wish for every couple with whom I counsel the simplicity of the love and caring that this couple so innocently and lovingly bestowed upon each other. Most of all I think of what a difference a religious institution and its leaders, clergy and laypeople alike, can make in fostering attitudes and extending outreach and support to all of God's creation, serving as God's partners in extending God's blessings of love and joy to anyone who has the ability to experience them.