Between Us: Let’s talk about bringing light to the darkness

Between Us

When they were younger, my kids asked that I leave a light on in the hallway so they could “sleep better.” Darkness for children – and for many adults – can be unnerving — even scary.

This week’s Torah portion – parashat Bo – continues the story of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians as Pharaoh defies Moses’s demands to let the Israelites go. The three final plagues, and their common theme of darkness, set up the profound exodus of the Jews from the darkness of slavery to the light of freedom.

But freedom does not guarantee light. Just a month ago, New Year’s Eve was particularly dark for a developmentally disabled teenager in Chicago. The 18-year-old man was abducted by four people who beat him, cut him and forced him to drink from a toilet. As a result of this barbaric assault, his attackers are being charged with hate crimes. Chicago police said that the victim was singled out because he has special needs. According to the Justice Department, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be the victims of violent crimes, and those with mental disabilities are the most likely to be victimized.

This February marks the ninth annual Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and the question for all of us is, “What do we DO when we see something? Do we say something? Do we step in, intervene, teach, explain, challenge, prevent and stop bad behavior? Do we effectively and tirelessly advocate for those with disabilities? We don’t have to look too far, since twenty percent of all Americans have a disability and all of us, as we age, will likely experience challenges with sight, hearing, mobility and/or memory.

Back to this week’s Torah portion. As Moses negotiates with Pharaoh for the release of the Children of Israel, he says, “We will all go, young and old, with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds.” In essence, Moses is saying, “To get to our Promised Land, we have to bring every one, every thing in our community. We have to bring all that we have, all that we are, in order to become all that we can be.” The lesson applies to us. To call ourselves a complete community, everyone must be included. To call our nation “a more perfect union,” everyone must be included. And we must certainly speak on behalf of those without a voice.

Inclusion is not a ramp. It is a mindset … and a set of actions. It is up to each of us to help shape that mindset by presenting a vision of an inclusive community. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is deeply committed to that vision and to building a more fully inclusive community. We were one of the first communities to hire a Disability Inclusion Specialist, and we are working with synagogues and organizations to help them “be all they can be,” with a brand new online self-assessment tool and consultation. Our website has had a statement of inclusion for five years and is fully accessible. We close-caption our videos. We host interns from the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes’ MOST program, who gain work experience with us as they transition from school to independence. We focus on the path toward greater inclusion, not just the programs. We take risks … and yes, sometimes we fail. But we make it abundantly clear that, like Moses, we’re taking everyone with us as we head to the Promised Land.

What does it take to pierce the darkness of ancient Egypt or the streets of Chicago on New Year’s Eve? We’re told that it’s better to “light a candle than curse the darkness.” It certainly is, but light is only temporary: the candle burns out; the flashlight battery expires.  Darkness can only truly be overcome with clear language and decisive action: doing the right thing, advocating for greater inclusion in our communal institutions and most of all, modeling behavior and demanding change.

In the words of this week’s Torah portion, “Bo” – come – come join us as we bring light, welcome and include. Doing so can help all of us – and especially those of us with disabilities – sleep better.