An inspiring D’var Torah about Inclusion

An inspiring D’var Torah about Inclusion

Right now, we are in the Omer period when we count the days between Passover and Shavuot.  Counting the Omer symbolizes the link between these two holidays.   The Omer connects Passover, the holiday that celebrates our freedom from slavery, to Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah.

The evolution from the mindset of slavery to becoming a free people is a complicated process that does not happen all at once.   A slave’s mind and body are entirely under the domination of another.   We were freed at the time of Passover but it took the passage of time, for us to reach Mt. Sinai both literally and figuratively.  It took a journey, with setbacks and mistakes along the way, for our ancestors to change as individuals and as a people. Only after we began to incorporate our sense of ourselves as a free people could we be given the Torah.   This journey from slavery to freedom required an intense culture change and involved many challenges along the way.

Culture change is never simple. In the 1960’s the Civil Rights movement moved our country away from the notion that separate could ever be equal or fair.  The Women’s Rights and LGBT movements have highlighted the injustice of limiting an individual’s rights based on gender or sexual orientation.  These movements have changed our society, and we understand that the full inclusion of individuals with disabilities will require us to inspire a culture change just as profound.

We know that approximately 19% of individuals in our community have a disability.  This means that in our Jewish community – in our preschools, our religious schools, our day schools, our youth groups, our sisterhoods, men’s clubs and at our religious and community events- we should see individuals with disabilities fully included.  We should see individuals with disabilities in all aspects of our businesses and on our governing boards.  We need to inspire the culture change that will make this vision a reality.

Culture change requires us to be intentional with our language.  We need to be intentional when we talk about this change being about justice, tzedek and not Chessed (kindness).  We need to be intentional when we talk about Jews with disabilities having universal rights.  While we’ve made strides in stressing “people first language” so that our emphasis is on the individual and not the disability, we need to take this a step further.  We need to argue that inclusion strengthens our community because everyone brings value to the table; inclusion isn’t about involving others, it is about improving the collective us.

As we are counting the Omer to connect Passover and Shavuot, let’s pause to consider the language of “counting”.  There is an important difference between the passive act of someone being counted and active involvement where everyone counts as a member of the community and is counted on as someone who brings benefit and value to the community.

When we count the Omer, we count up from the first day to the 50th.  This is unusual because we usually countdown to important events.  Inclusion is very much an act of counting up, not down.  When we include we add value to our community.  Many of us in this room have had the privilege to be part of a fully inclusive camp, school program, or work environment and we know firsthand the additive benefit of inclusion.

There is an important individual aspect to culture change.  When we count and include the 19%, we need to first look at the individuals involved to make sure everyone in our community counts.  When we intentionally create programs that involve individuals with disabilities volunteering as part of Good Deeds day as we did this year, when we promote employment opportunities like having a JFGH intern work at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington as we will do this fall, and when we change our advertisement for Birthright-Israel trips to include a very clear message that all are welcome as we are doing, we are creating culture change on the level of the individual.

I am proud of the way we have made this culture change ours at The Jewish Federation.  This past year we have sponsored the Matan Institute so congregational school educators can gain skills to be able to reach a wider range of diverse learners, the Jconnect team created a dedicated page with specific resources for Jewish Disability Awareness Month and we were all involved in a thought provoking a staff training around disability inclusion.  The partner agencies we support both locally and globally are part of this culture change.   From our preschools that address students’ special right, through vibrant inclusive programs for children, teens and adults to transportation services for our seniors and adults with disabilities we see examples of change taking root.  Weaving our efforts together, the work we do counts even more.

But culture change has to go beyond the individual level. We need to do something big; something visual; something meaningful. For the Jewish people, the change that took place from Passover to Shavuot was monumental; perhaps the biggest and most visual change in our history as a people. As we stood at Sinai, we were awakened, we were changed, and we were ready to be given the Torah.

Culture change involves an awaking, a discomfort with the status quo.  Many of our institutions have embraced inclusion yet we still do not see individuals with disabilities actively engaged and involved in all aspects of the Jewish community.  It is not enough to be welcoming.  If we don’t see individuals with disabilities in our preschools, our religious schools, our day schools, our youth groups, our sisterhoods, men’s clubs and at our religious and community events we still have work to do.  What do we need to do to awaken our community?  What do we need to do to inspire the culture change we need to see?

Inclusion is a priority here at Federation.  When we say, “we are committed to being a welcoming and inclusive community for all by expanding the ways in which individuals are invited and encouraged to participation in Jewish life”, we make sure that these words count.  When we start asking ourselves what more can we do to make sure all our programs, all our events and all our committees include individuals with disabilities, we can make this culture change ours.

The Rabbi’s teach that while the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai the act of receiving the Torah is an ongoing process.  Culture change, likewise, is an ongoing process.  Our mission is to inspire the culture change that guarantees the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of our community.  We need to wake-up the community and move us forward.  We need to build on our strengths, on our ability as individual agencies and organizations to count and include all.  We need to inspire the culture change that creates a community where everyone counts.

-By Lisa Handelman, The Jewish Federation’s Community Disability Inclusion Specialist