Magazine article The New Yorker

First Timer

Magazine article The New Yorker

First Timer

Article excerpt

Throughout American history, the number of blind rabbis serving in Congress has remained steady at zero. In a cluttered campaign office next to the Naturoll sushi takeout in Haworth, New Jersey, Dennis Shulman is trying to change that. Shulman, who is fifty-eight, has a snowy beard and a sunny disposition. "I'm going down to Atlantic City later today to meet with the building-trades guys, and I love them," he said the other day, surrounded by a roomful of volunteers. "I don't think of my life as the sacred and the profane. I just think of it as expanding my pulpit."

Shulman grew up in a family of modest means in Worcester, Massachusetts. When he was five, he received a diagnosis of bilateral optic atrophy, a nerve disorder that gradually diminished his sight until, about a decade later, he was totally blind. Nevertheless, through high school he worked afternoons and summers at a toy factory. "I wrapped up little plastic brooms and little pans, so little girls would grow up to be housewives," he said. "The guy who ran the factory was highly regarded at the national level, because he hired the handicapped. The only problem was that he paid minimum wage, eighty-five cents an hour, which was fine with me, but not with the thirty-five-year-old working next to me."

Shulman graduated from Brandeis in 1972, and four years later he got a doctorate in clinical psychology from Harvard. His wife, Pam, was in medical school in New York, and eventually they set up practices in the city, hers as an obstetrician and his as a therapist to adults and couples. In 1981, they moved to New Jersey, where they raised two daughters, one of whom now works in Texas politics. "When I was in college, I thought I was going to be a rabbi when I grew up, but I had a spiritual crisis in my freshman year, when my high-school girlfriend died of leukemia," Shulman said. "But the feeling never disappeared, and about ten or fifteen years ago I started giving lectures to psychoanalysts about Bible stories, starting with Abraham and Isaac. My friends could see before I could that I was heading back to my old ambition." Ordained in 2003, Shulman conducts services every Saturday before a small congregation in the town of Alpine. …

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