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We are now in the middle of what is colloquially known as the Jewish High Holy Days: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur- the New Year and Day of Atonement, respectively. These two events, outside their religious significance for Members of the Tribe, are incredibly special because of their motif and their ability to bring people together. Families gather for meals and communities for a rare moment fill their synagogues to capacity to discuss what they can do to be better people in the year to come. From the pulpit and in the privacy of dining rooms the theme of inclusion is frequently discussed.
As said, the High Holidays tend to be the one time of year when the entire congregation is present, and that can be a difficult experience for people with disabilities if their community does not subscribe to the need for an inclusive environment. To put it another way, how would you feel if the one time everyone in the group decides to meet up for an event, it is organized or executed in such a way that you specifically will not be able to attend or fully participate? What does that do to your perception of your own value? It’s a particularly egregious hurt when everyone can get in and you can’t.
“Some people may feel unwelcome because of their disability,” says Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Whether it is people making sounds or wheelchairs being relegated to the back, how we treat someone with a disability can make them feel outside of what is normative and what we are traditionally proud of. Some people say why should mental disability, mental health, be so central to high holidays? Because this is the moment we can all hear and all admit to our feelings and understand. But there is a converse, if you aren’t able to join at this time, it’s incredibly painful.”
And it’s not just about joining. Being in the room alone does not necessarily make one a participant; surely that decision and the feeling surrounding it is determined by the person in question. Everyone’s desired level of fulfilling participation is different, and this can be problematic if we view an activity through a single sensory experience. The blowing of the shofar- a ceremonial ram’s horn is a prime example of this. Not everyone can optimally experience it by hearing it, but everyone can benefit from a shofar experience aligned with their needs. “If you’re someone who doesn’t access [the instrument] that way- deaf or overstimulated for example- that can be an underwhelming or overwhelming experience. People can feel and access a call in different ways. Someone could feel the vibration of the shofar instead of hearing it,” explains Rabbi Mencher. Yom Kippur is also particularly relevant for this conversation. From sundown to sundown, Jews mark the Day of Atonement by fasting as a gesture of repentance. Well, not everyone is capable of fasting. And this is understood for pregnant women and the elderly, but people with disabilities are not always mentioned when such an exemption is described. Just as importantly, when we create such a binary way of observing versus not observing, it can put people in an uncomfortable place and leave them thinking that they are unworthy or less than.
Because of the significance of this time of the year and the high level and desire for participation, people must also recognize that this is their opportunity to make meaningful and lasting impressions that can directly influence the future of an entire community. Molly Silver, Manager of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, offers a great example: “Let’s say a young family has received a diagnosis that their child has autism or diabetes- something not visible- and they are suddenly feeling that their life has shifted enormously. They wonder if their child will be safe and loved in this space. Can the child be in the babysitting or preschool program? If they don’t receive a message of ‘we want you here’ they will never come back and no one will have the benefit of knowing them or learning with them. They’ll be outside the camp. They need us and we need them. This is the moment that they need to know and feel that they are just as precious as everyone else. These are the moments people remember forever.”
Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey has been at the forefront of disability inclusion for many years, offering both religious school options and opportunities for members with disabilities to participate fully in congregational life. Temple Beth-El was recognized as an Exemplar Congregation for their work around disability inclusion at the 2015 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention and the synagogue is also featured on an online learning site that is part of the Union for Reform Judaism-Ruderman Family Foundation Initiative on Disabilities Inclusion. Grace Amodeo, pictured here, is one of the congregation’s many success stories.
Being inclusive toward people with disabilities does not start or end with people with disabilities. Think of refugees, of those who are a different race than you, of those with a different sexual orientation, or different language. Inclusion is a conscious decision, a mindset and a value acknowledging that everyone has the same rights as you. It is not unique to any group of people or any particular situation. Once that is understood and introduced into one’s social DNA, inclusion ceases to be a task and becomes a way of being. And that is for everyone in this new year.
Looking to make your high holidays more inclusive? Check out the Inclusion Resources of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project and the Union For Reform Judaism’s Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center.