Our tradition clearly teaches us the value of inclusion. But people often feel it is too hard or effects too few people. My contention is that everyone in the community benefits when people with disabilities are included. Here are five “selfish” reasons for including people with disabilities in your Jewish community.
- Inclusion builds a stronger community. When people see that the synagogue and its educational offerings are making accommodations to include people who have special needs, they understand that this is a community that cares for its members. Whenever any one of us has a need, and there will be a time when each of us will need to rely on the community, we can each have confidence that the members of the community will rise to the occasion to help us out. Members know that they are supported and that they should support others when they can.
- Inclusion refocuses our values. Whenever I’ve studied special needs education, I have noted that the top priorities seem to be to teach children to 1) get along with others and 2) be as independent as possible, which includes finding a purpose and being of use. These are the great life questions that Jewish tradition comes to teach us how to answer as well. In today’s world where it’s so easy to think that the most important things are high test scores, “résumé builders,” and breaking records, we need to remember that without friends or a sense of purpose, it’s all for naught.
- We all have needs. I don’t like when people say this as a way of downplaying (or even unintentionally equalizing) the significant challenges that people with disabilities face compared to the other, more routine ups and downs we all face. But the fact is we all need to be accommodated in different ways at different times. In particular when it comes to Judaism, few of us feel very able at all. For most of us, Hebrew is a language that challenges us when we study or pray. For many of us, the vast majority of the wisdom of our tradition eludes us. Nobody has completed the work of repairing his or her ethical self. Jewish tradition teaches that we have purposely been created imperfectly so that we can do the work of improving ourselves. “All that was created during the six days of creation requires improvement. For example, the mustard seed needs sweetening and the lupine needs sweetening, wheat needs to be ground, and even a person needs improvement.” (Genesis Rabah 11:6)
- People with disabilities have contributions to make. By virtue of their experience, people with disabilities and their families have much to teach about patience, perseverance, love, standing up for justice, tenacity, and rising above circumstance. In addition to that, they have unique passions and insights to share. I grew up in a congregation with an extraordinary man (I’ll call him Sam) who lived with cerebral palsy into his 70s. He loved classical music and baseball, and he used to win free tickets to shows and games off of the radio. He would bring congregants and friends with him on these outings who benefited from his vast knowledge, enthusiasm, and excellent seats!
- Inclusion pushes us to be our best, in all the ways I’ve mentioned and more. I asked my dad to talk to me a bit about the remarkable couple that was part of our congregation for so many years. The husband Sam I mentioned above. His wife also has cerebral palsy, and they adopted two children with disabilities. My father talked about the things he learned from this family that defied all odds. Sam pushed for his own inclusion in every aspect of synagogue life. When they took a trip to New York to see a Broadway show, Sam called the bus company and got a bus with a chair lift. After the show, he rode his electronic wheelchair around Times Square and met the bus in time to head home. It is because of Sam that the synagogue now has a ramp up to the bima and activated doors. My father reflected, “There really wasn’t anything he thought he couldn’t do.” I thought, “Or that we couldn’t do.”
When people say that something isn’t accessible to a person with disabilities because the disability is too difficult to accommodate, they aren’t understanding the challenges that the disabled person is facing every day. If Sam could eat his breakfast and get to an orchestra performance and raise two children, we could drive him to a Brotherhood meeting or build a new building that was handicap accessible (even if the synagogue was exempt from ADA laws). We can include everyone, and we should. We’ll all be better for it.