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How Buddhism, a Disability and My Wife Brought Me to Judaism

Developing a disability in my mid-20s pushed me into all sorts of unexpected situations: I became unemployed for a few years, learned how to use a computer without typing and became the primary caretaker for my two daughters. One of the strangest outcomes, though, was joining a synagogue.

Raised Catholic but without much heart connection to the faith, I later found Buddhism when I was dealing with a lot of anxiety in college. And at the time, it was a good fit. As an only child, I’d been used to spending a lot of time alone. I also believed that by “working on myself” in meditation, I might leave behind some of the insecure feelings that had long plagued me. 

Then, in my mid-20s, I developed a neuropathy which resulted in throbbing pain from my neck to fingertips. Fine motor movements, like typing or using a touchscreen, made it even worse. For a few years, I couldn’t carry a bag or turn the pages in a book. I had to leave my work at an educational nonprofit.  

As I spent more and more time alone in the 300-square-foot Brooklyn apartment I shared with my wife, while she went to work—while everyone went to work—the allure of solitary, silent practice faded. As a highly educated, privileged male, I felt ashamed earning no money while having plenty of medical expenses.  

Though Buddhism had given me so many skills to help steady my mind, withhold judgment and live in the present, I craved community. I was looking for a way to rediscover a sense of my own utility and no amount of solitary meditation helped me feel like I belonged. 

So when my wife, two daughters and I moved to the Hudson Valley a few years ago and ended up down the road from a friendly, Reform synagogue, I was intrigued. My wife, who is Jewish, had long ago expressed the hope that our daughters become bat mitzvahed. At the time, though, we both wanted to avoid the “Oh shit, time to learn some Hebrew at age 12!” panic that we’d seen. If they were going to have a spiritual education, we wanted it to be thoughtful and jive with what we had gained from our Buddhist training. 

Dan standing in front of a collage that his older daughter helped create.

After meeting with many members and the Rabbi—who had been raised in the Lutheran Church and later converted—we felt that the community was in line with our values. Given the unabashed atheists and the former Southern Baptist I met at the first bagel brunch, my earlier religious affiliations seemed to be no big deal.  

From a Buddhist perspective, there’s no need to keep the same religious identity because there is no single, permanent self to hold onto. I’m a Buddhist in the same way that a fish in the Hudson River is a Hudson River fish until it swims into another stream. I swam into Jewish, attracted by the warmth of this community, the traditions of Shabbat and holidays and the idea of walking on a spiritual path right next to my daughters. 

Being disabled taught me that it’s not viable to live completely independently. Sooner or later, you’re going to need help, whether it’s emotional support, counseling or physical assistance. And wouldn’t you like to be in a position to offer that to someone else? (In the first few weeks of joining, I was able to help a father find speech recognition resources for his son who has a physical disability.) 

Our synagogue offers me a spiritual opportunity that I tended to shy away from in my Buddhist past: getting to know other people. I’ve always been more comfortable in the quiet silo of meditation; it was the interactions outside the shrine room I found difficult.  

Dan standing in front of his temple.

Yet, according to the ancient teachings of the Three Jewels, a balanced Buddhist path requires not just study and practice but also a sangha, a community. Historically, American Buddhists tend to give short shrift to the community aspect, instead favoring an idealized spiritual journey of one, a quest to conquer one’s demons. 

However, by casting one’s spirituality as a self-improvement project, we fail to understand a central Buddhist teaching that we are fundamentally healthy and worthy—including people with disabilities or illnesses—as we are. Meditation can help us see our basic goodness, but it does not manufacture it. 

This all makes more sense now after my early experience with Temple Israel. I find that just by sitting in the sanctuary and watching the wall of stained-glass glow of late afternoon sun behind the cantor, I feel completely equal to those next to me. Even when I am kibitzing (chatting) with the men’s group, I find that together, we are genuinely trying to move away from the world of status and external achievements and searching for a deeper, more genuine connection. 

Open-mindedness occurs when life radically departs from the expected, and you are forced to leave behind the comfort of your old plans. Rather than seeing Jewish as a weird deviation, I feel it’s a new adventure and one that I appreciate is welcoming enough to have an ex-Catholic, Buddhist guy who can’t type for shit. 

Dan Cayer

Dan Cayer lives in the Hudson Valley and is writing a book about how to transform the experience of pain and illness into a path of openness and kindness. More of his writing about the intersection of health and spirituality can be found here.


Author: Dan Cayer