Creating a meaningful inclusive Jewish community

I have an aunt who, like me, enjoys writing. While I write about disability issues, she writes first person stories that, while I always enjoy reading them, I don’t find them particularly relevant to my life personally. That changed recently when I read an article she wrote about how a message contained in a children’s book she loved related to Yom Kippur.

The book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, is a nice story about how a little lighthouse whose job it is to guide the ships and planes safely feels usurped when the great gray bridge is built. But the bridge kindly explains that the lighthouse isn’t useless; they both have important jobs to do to accomplish an important goal: keeping the river safe.

My aunt’s article then went on to relate that theme of being needed and feeling useful to the holy day of Yom Kippur: “On Yom Kippur, we recite words from Psalms during the Musaf prayers and with a full and humble heart, we ask the Almighty, ‘Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.’ No one … not even a little lighthouse in a storybook, wants to feel cast aside and forgotten.”

This last part of my aunt’s article resonated with me and impels me to write yet another article now about Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, coming up in February. My hope is that there is still time to effect real change. 

Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is a worldwide effort among Jewish organizations to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities. Some organizations, schools and synagogues are planning programs and activities to mark the month and educate the community. 

But here is where I have a problem.

My sometimes snarky, sometimes pessimistic, sometimes frustrated, but always blind self reacts to these efforts by organizations by thinking (and sometimes saying aloud), “Big deal! So you have programming one month out of the year.” Then my more tolerant, though still blind, self says, “It’s a start. But what can I do to create more lasting change?”

For over 40 years, I have been involved in some form of disability advocacy outside of the Jewish community as well as within it. I have spoken to school age children about disability and I have advocated for disabled representation on our Jewish boards.

Have I seen change over the last 30 years in the Jewish community in terms of including people with disabilities? Without a doubt. The mere fact that we have organizations like Keshet that provide educational, recreational employment and independent living services for people with intellectual disabilities and advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of communal life is testament to progress. So is the fact that there are so many schools, synagogues and organizations who are talking about inclusion and having programs in February.

The problem I have is while we have certainly evolved, we aren’t there yet. It is not enough just to talk about how we can be more inclusive; it is not enough just to invite people with disabilities in the month of February; it is not enough when our buildings are physically inaccessible, or we don’t have sign language interpreters at programs or audio description when our agencies have videos. It is not enough when a synagogue has only one shabbat out of the year where individuals with disabilities are invited to participate in a service, and it is not enough to invite organizations who provide services to individuals with disabilities to participate in planning these programs and not include the voices of people, themselves, with disabilities.

It is striking to me how often I can attend a program, meeting or conference and, when I look around the room (metaphorically of course), I don’t see other people like me—not just blind people, but anyone with a disability. I can’t tell you how many times I hear about planning committees for JDAIM, but the people who are invited to the table are the people who provide services to people with disabilities and not the people with the disabilities. 

On the subject of that last part, I am not at all postulating that these providers of services not be included at the table. What I am saying, however, is that the voices of those who have lived the disability experience need to be included in the discussion too. The credo of the disabled community must be recognized and validated: “Nothing about us, without us”!

Don’t just talk about inclusion. Include us!

I have been totally blind for almost 29 years and visually impaired for 28 years before that. I have been blessed to feel that I truly belong in my community. I have a supportive family, wonderful friends and I have been fortunate to serve in leadership positions within the community for the past 30 years. Currently I am proud to serve as board chair of Keshet, whose mission is to create a community of belonging, where individuals with disabilities learn, play, work, live and grow with people of all abilities. I am proud of my service on the Keshet board because it combines both my Jewish identity and disabled identity in a very meaningful way. 

Not all people with disabilities are as fortunate as I am to have a community and meaningful involvement. But there are places where I still feel excluded and alienated. There are still websites that are difficult to navigate or that do not make accommodations for me to obtain printed materials in an accessible way or audio description for videos.

It’s 2021, almost 2022. We have the technology. We can use it to make anyone with a disability feel welcome and empowered to participate fully and meaningfully. We need to make sure our spaces are accessible, and we need to make an intentional effort to reach out to the disabled community. Because that is what it takes to make people feel valued, useful, needed. That is what it takes to benefit from what everyone—including people with disabilities—has to offer in building a community.

So if you are one of those agencies, schools, or synagogues who aspire to be inclusive, I say, “Kol hakavod.” But don’t just be inclusive in February. Start now, and ask people with disabilities, themselves, what it would take to make them feel welcome, to feel that they belong. Invite them to be part of the process of creating an inclusive community 12 months out of the year. The end result will benefit everyone.

Inclusion is a Jewish value

“Hinei ma tov u’ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad.  Behold how good and pleasant it is when all people live together as one.” (Psalm 133)

If the Great Gray Bridge in my aunt’s story is the Jewish community, it can certainly welcome, include, and partner with all the lighthouses—people with disabilities. Together, we can reach our common goal: creating a vibrant Jewish community accessible to all.

Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, vice chair of the board of the Institute for Therapy Through the Arts, a member of Disability Lead  and the author of Close Your Eyes, and There Once Was a Camel.

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