Why is this beach different from all other beaches?

Why is this beach different from all other beaches?

Wheelchairs that can be taken into the water are available upon request (and with lifeguard supervision) at North Bath Avenue Beach in Long Branch. Photo by Martin J. Raffel
Wheelchairs that can be taken into the water are available upon request (and with lifeguard supervision) at North Bath Avenue Beach in Long Branch. Photo by Martin J. Raffel

The last several years living in Long Branch have helped me appreciate how therapeutic it is to spend time at the beach, swim in the ocean, and peacefully stretch one’s eyes over the endless horizon. And yet, people with disabilities are often unable to access the tranquility of the shore.
The city of Long Branch is committed to changing that picture. We should be, too.

Even if it’s not one of our usual pet causes, advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities is an important Jewish issue. All the major religious movements have posted extensive material about this issue on their websites, and they support congregational efforts geared toward enhancing the inclusion of individuals with disabilities. The Jewish Funders Network has published a comprehensive guide to Jewish values and disability rights, which builds on the core Jewish concept of b’tzelem Elokim, that all human beings are created in God’s image.

Other Jewish values reflected in the handbook are kavod, respecting all people; areyvut, communal responsibility; and tzedek and tikkun olam, social justice and repairing the world. And the Torah explicitly states that we should not put a stumbling block before the blind.

Last month, the Long Branch municipal government — with active support from MOCEANS (Center for Independent Living and the city’s Disability Caucus) — opened at the North Bath Avenue Beach what it described as its first “fully accessible beach” for people with disabilities. 

Since 2017, Judyth Brown has served as executive director of MOCEANS, a non-profit organization operating in Monmouth and Ocean counties whose mission is to “support choice, promote public awareness, and barrier-free access in the community while advancing the independent living philosophy in the lives of all people with disabilities.” Serving in this position, she told me, was not accidental.

“My father’s family were refugees from Germany, arriving in the United States in 1938, just nine months before Kristallnacht,” she said. The Holocaust, she noted, “was an unspoken presence in our lives.” This awareness led Brown to teach Holocaust studies to sixth graders at Temple Beth Miriam in Long Branch, and she sees her work at MOCEANS as an expression of tikkun olam by making the world a better place for people with disabilities, who were prime targets of Nazi persecution.

Brown helped me understand why this newly accessible beach is superior to the many other New Jersey sites that allow for wheelchair access. On the other beaches, she said, only one wheelchair at a time can be rolled onto the sand on narrow and temporary “moby-mats.” But at the North Bath Avenue Beach, she explained, the city has put down expansive semi-permanent decking (it can be removed during hurricane season), which can accommodate multiple wheelchairs at the same time. In addition, wheelchairs that can be taken into the surf with lifeguard supervision are available upon request, and the firefighters’ union has pledged funding to build an accessible playground next year.

Long Branch isn’t stopping there; Brown said the city is planning to add another fully accessible beach in the future.

I spoke on the phone with Jennifer Perry, who, since 2014, has served as an access specialist at the Northeast ADA Center. She deals with design and construction compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The civil rights law, which will celebrate on July 26 the 29th anniversary of its going into effect, prohibits discrimination based on disability.

Perry, who lives with her family in Sea Girt, told me that access requirements at federally controlled beaches (usually national parks) are relatively clear-cut. But with state and local beaches, the situation is “not as straight-forward.” However, “What Long Branch is doing by putting down semi-permanent decking is commendable,” she said, “and helps work toward achieving program accessibility at beaches.”

Susan Antman, executive director of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey — a federation that includes Monmouth County and its many beaches — praised the actions taken by Long Branch and said the federation welcomes “public, nonprofit, and faith-based initiatives that make the heart of New Jersey inclusive for all its citizens.”

I wondered how Israel handles beach accessibility, not only as a reflection of the Jewish state’s values, but also because it has a significant population of disabled citizens, including many wounded in terrorist attacks and military combat. Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation has focused much energy and resources on elevating the issue of inclusion and accessibility within the Jewish community, e-mailed me that “Israel’s beaches are an integral part of what Israel is all about.”

Even so, he said, although Israel has progressive regulations on this issue, there is still a problem with enforcement and implementation: Local authorities are responsible to advertise accessible beaches, but he said it’s not done properly. “As a result, during the hot summer months in Israel, the basic right to use beaches is denied to people with disabilities and their families,” he lamented.

With regard to Ruderman’s concerns, I reached out to Gaby Admon-Rick, project manager at the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities at Israel’s Ministry of Justice. “We have set specific requirements for beaches and there has been much advocacy, and we are beginning to see improvement, especially this summer, with municipalities around the country publishing their work on making beaches accessible,” she responded in an e-mail.

More good news: Greater sensitivity to the needs of people with disabilities in Monmouth County is not limited to Long Branch. I’ve just learned of a new initiative, Access Asbury, led by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Working with a steering committee that includes city and business leaders, plans are being put in place to make Asbury Park fully accessible “to individuals living with paralysis from the beach to the boardwalk and beyond,” according to the foundation’s website. Asbury Park was chosen as a model city for accessibility, again according to the website, because it “is a landmark city within the state of New Jersey,” and has “a rich history combined with progressive growth and diversity.…” 

Once the accessibility changes are made, the foundation hopes to replicate this model around the country.   

I’ll end on a proud-father note. My heightened consciousness about inclusion and accessibility is a product of my daughter Alanna’s incredible commitment and passion for this issue. Without it, I might have strolled past the North Bath Avenue Beach installation without giving it a second thought. Next month she’s planning to visit and learn from Breda, a city of 180,000 people in the Netherlands, which won the Access City Award for 2019. Because Alanna educated me on the importance of inclusion I am —how do they say it today? — ah yes: woke.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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