Let’s talk about Inclusion

Between Us

Here are three ways to Make It Yours this week:

At the invitation of Jeff Cohen, president of the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf (WSJD) and a member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington‘s Board of Directors, my family and I participated in last week’s WSJD Rosh Hashanah service.

It was an extraordinary experience.

Conducted entirely in sign language by members of the deaf community, it was one of the most welcoming, spiritually uplifting and memorable services in which I’ve had the pleasure of participating. With simultaneous voice translation and captioning, the tables were turned: the hearing members of the congregation were the ones utilizing translation services, not the other way around.

For many years, unable to have their needs met and be successfully engaged – particularly in religious services dominated by Hebrew – many deaf Jews have felt marginalized by the organized Jewish community. What struck me most about last week’s Rosh Hashanah service was the strong desire by the deaf Jewish congregants to take full responsibility for the experience, to accommodate everyone and to celebrate community. Kelby Brick, Director of Jewish Life and Learning for WSJD, served as the facilitator, inviting others to lead the prayers. The beauty of sign language, and its ability to powerfully express emotions, made for a spiritually moving experience for all. With voice translation and captioning, the hearing parents, spouses and children of the deaf congregants were fully included. The strong bonds of friendship and community were evident during the morning service, with plenty of smiles and laughter throughout. And if you haven’t experienced the blowing of the shofar accompanied by a large bass drum on the floor to enable deaf congregants to feel its jarring effect, you haven’t truly been “woken up” during the shofar service!

It was a joyous experience and reinforced the need for our community to actively welcome everyone, regardless of ability: to extend a hand and make a seat available, to build a ramp, provide an interpreter, offer written materials in braille, include people with developmental disabilities, welcome newcomers and those of other faiths, and much more. As we collectively take responsibility – al chet shechatanu, for the sin which we have committed – let us similarly take collective responsibility for the inclusive community we must build.

During tomorrow’s Yom Kippur service, we will read the inspiring words of Isaiah: “[Adonai] says, Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people.” In this new year 5775, let us commit – individually and together – to removing all obstacles.

The mournful, final strains of Neilah will soon be heard. There is still time, however. Time to ask forgiveness of those we have wronged, time to focus on what we as individuals can do better in the coming year and time to begin working collectively to build an even stronger, more welcoming and caring community.

Wishing you a meaningful fast.

Steven A. Rakitt, Chief Executive Officer
[email protected]