June 9th, 2004
To the Editor,
Your “Dear Molly” column offered some unfortunate advice, primarily based upon a lack of pertinent facts offered by a woman (“Disgusted”), who was offended by a congregant who wore a “gas mask” to her own adult Bat Mitzvah. As someone who must wear a respirator mask in order to attend communal worship in any synagogue, I can assure you that no human being would choose to wear such a device unless forced to do so by a serious disability. A respirator mask is as essential to some as a prosthetic limb for an amputee or an oxygen canister for someone with emphysema.
Evidently, the synagogue made a decision to use a particularly toxic form of paint for their maintenance instead of a low VOC product required by this woman’s health issues. The woman was not offered the opportunity to help the synagogue to make decisions that would permit her to fully participate in the congregation. Instead she was told to decide at what point in time she wished to be excluded from her synagogue – before or after this important ceremony.
Given a choice of exclusion or adapting to a system that refuses to yield to common sense and choose the most healthful solutions for all concerned, this woman did the right thing. She bravely chose not to make a statement, but to include herself in her community on the basis required by her disability. To refer to it as allergy is to denigrate the condition that millions of Americans have today which is an induced intolerance to low levels of toxic chemicals present in most of the products on the market today. This is a side effect of being poisoned by various chemicals known as “sensitizers”. Sufferers have the choice to remain totally isolated or to adapt via the use of masks and other strategies if they wish to live in society.
What the public needs to know is that
1. The indoor air quality of our homes, offices and public facilities is generally unhealthy, according to the EPA. There is a reason why 25 million Americans have asthma. Improvements in indoor air quality benefit all congregants and refusing to select among least toxic products for maintenance is a “shame” on the part of the synagogue board – not on the part of a congregant needing such basic assistance to live from day to day.
2. Those persons who were so distressed by seeing someone wearing a mask that they could not enjoy the service, need to rethink the meaning of that service. We celebrate the Shabbat to acknowledge the sanctity of all life as Jews. To deny the joys of communal worship to a fellow Jew because their appearance may be disturbing is a violation of our tradition. They need to mature in terms of their attitudes and begin to think about what this attitude teaches their children. I have seen too many disabled persons live lives of miserable isolation because of this way of thinking. Indeed, until I left NYC, I was unable to find a single congregation willing to tolerate my need for a pesticide free facility (nearly all exterminators have effective alternatives to the use of toxic sprays) and was denied access to shuls for over five years.
I advise readers of the Jewish Week to cease thinking about the synagogue as a place to have bake sales and to recall the central tenets of Judaism expressed in the ceremony of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We assume our adult responsibilities in the practice of mitzvoth which teach us to value life and sanctify it. Those paint fumes are life threatening to people such as myself and are also damaging to every congregant in some manner. Where are your priorities?
Categories: Jewish Week