I was at my desk, minding my own business when Eta Levenson, a volunteer leader of Greater MetroWest ABLE, sent me an email asking me to speak in our shul on Shabbat Shalem, a Shabbat of Inclusion, the Shabbat designated by our Federation to observe Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month.
My role in Greater MetroWest ABLE (Access, Belonging and Life Enrichment for individuals with disabilities and their families,) has been as a professional representing my organization among the many in Greater MetroWest who sit around the table to coordinate activities in support of people with special needs and their families—and I must say that this effort of ours is the envy of Federations throughout North America.
My role with ABLE introduced me to the valiant efforts of volunteer and professional leaders from our Federation and agencies, but unlike most of my colleagues, the major focus of my work was not on special needs.
Unlike the families of most of the volunteers, thank God, my children and grandchildren seem fairly typical to me.
So my initial response to Eta was, thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not sure I have the voice for this.
But inside my head, my response to me was: I should try to find that voice, not as a professional but as a Jew and as a human being. So I set out to find that voice.
My first thought is that it’s too bad we have to have these “months” to remind us of important matters; but the truth is that without a designated time like this we might never talk about this, other than the people who are impacted.
Some of my work with Greater MetroWest ABLE was to work with Becca Wanatick, the talented and driven professional manager of ABLE, to create a program where shuls might conduct a self-assessment to determine how accessible they are. Shuls who met a threshold of criteria would be encouraged to pursue greater accessibility by being publicly named as ABLE-Awarded.
There is a somewhat-famous story told about the Rav—Joseph B. Soloveitchik—and the people in his shiur. He starts with his talmidim, then the Rambam enters, then the Rosh, then the Ritva and so on. I love that story.
Being ABLE awarded means that …
If Lemech, the father of Noah, entered a shul, people we would know where to find a Braille Chumash to give him so that he can read his story.
If Yitzchak Avinu came in, people would know where to find a large-print Siddur so he can see what Mincha, the tefilla that he instituted, looks like today.
If Yaakov Avinu limped in, someone would always be at the ready to hold the door open for him, or if he had a bad day and was in his wheelchair people would know how to set up the dedicated space for wheelchairs in the shul.
I learned a lot through this process. I learned that many synagogues lack obvious accommodations like the Aron Kodesh or the Bima being accessible to people in a wheelchair. There are also not-so-obvious accommodations for people with special needs, like
Non-scented soaps, for people who have allergies
Water fountains with cup dispensers if they are not low enough for people in wheelchairs
Podium light strong enough to enable people with hearing impairments to read lips
Mezuzahs that are halachically placed but low enough that people in wheelchairs may still be able to reach them for a kiss on the way in or out
But the most important thing I learned is this: It’s not really about the checklist of accommodations. It is thinking and speaking and acting in thoughtful ways that all contribute to creating a culture of inclusion.
That means using welcoming language that infuses shul policies, brochures, flyers and announcements. It means considering every program, idea, initiative and event with this question in mind: How can we make this as inclusive as possible? What barriers might there be—all surely unintended, as no one wants to keep anyone out—but what are we not seeing today that might become a barrier for someone tomorrow?
In Hebrew, the verb for this is lichlol—to include—literally, to build a community, a clal.
Over time, I learned more—I learned that the designation of “special needs” is not limited to our friends like the members of Yachad. I came to appreciate that we are all differently abled and that accommodating and welcoming people with special needs really works—and the commitment to meeting those needs is ever-lasting and not dependent on a commemorative “month”—when we set out to accommodate and welcome… people. All people.
Some of us come to shul to daven with a minyan, and with the holiest of intentions, seek quiet time behind the mechitzah. But if Rachel Imaynu came to shul to cry to Hashem to bring her children back from galus, might she walk in to find men davening in the space that the shul set aside for her?
Gabbaim try to juggle many requests and requirements just to move along from Aleph to Bet to Gimmel. I know the pressure because I do this sometimes. But if Queen Michal walked in to say kaddish for King Shaul, her father, who would notice? Who would proactively make sure that at least one man is ready to say Kaddish with her?
If Rut, who recently converted to Judaism and is not yet familiar with our liturgy, came for Shavuot, will someone announce the pages in the Machzor from time to time?
If Eliyahu HaNavi entered, appearing to us as a stranger as he is known to do, will someone—more than one someone—say hello?
There is much conjecture about the sin of the builders of Migdal Bavel—the tower of Babel. What was the nature of their sin that led to a punishment of divergence of language? I would like to suggest it was the fact that everyone spoke the same language at the outset of this story—it’s not a good thing. The universal unity of language created a society that masqueraded as cohesive but, in reality, was diabolically coercive. The false sense of unity—the oneness as experienced in a common language, brought about a misguided common purpose. God saw that thoughtless uniformity, simply for the sake of sameness, is not good; and so, He turned their one language into 70 languages to seed 70 different cultures, to give voice to 70 nations, but also ultimately, we hope, to lead to understanding the 70 faces of Torah.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ponders the origins of anti-Semitism, one of the oldest hatreds in history. He finds it right here:
“Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them’” (Esther, 3:8).
Rabbi Sacks says, “Dislike of the unlike, a fear of people who are different from us. What irked Haman was the insistence of the Jews on their right to be different—their duty to be different. God took one nation and said, ‘Be different!’ in order to teach the world the dignity of difference. God does not want us all to be the same. He loves the diversity of languages, cultures and creeds. That is where God is to be found. The unity of God creates the diversity of humankind. We, who took it as the historic challenge to be different, are the people chosen to bring that truth to the world.”
We are all different. Sanhedrin 38a noted that the gentile emperor mints coins with his image, and every single one is the same. Hashem mints people in his image—and every single one is different.
As one Jewish People, we are different; we are Ivrim.
As individual Jewish people we are deficient; we learn this from Shekalim.
We are enjoined to contribute half of a shekel each year. We will do this on Purim. Just half a shekel. Hashem tells us very clearly—the rich may not give more. The poor may not give less.
Hashem goes on to tell us that a shekel is 20 geras. OK, so if a full shekel is 20 geras, then Hashem could have simply said, give 10 geras, a nice round number; why confuse us with fractions? But that is not the language used. The language is deliberate. Its purpose is to remind us that we—each of us—is incomplete. We are not “10 geras” we are half a shekel. We need at least one more person to become whole, to be Shalem.
By presenting us with our Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu…
Moshe, who by the way may have had a speech impediment
Moshe, who by the way was physically strange by the nature of his facial luminescence and the veil he wore to screen it
… Moshe Rabbeinu presided over the brit between God and the Jews and spoke these words:
“It is not only with you that we enter this brit with Hashem, not only with those who are standing with us today, but also with those who are not here today” (Devarim 29:14).
To be inclusive is to have a Moshe mindset. To be inclusive is to understand that when we think, we think not only about us, but about others. That when we take action, we take action not only for us, but for those who want to be with us, those who are not with us, those who cannot be with us until we let them in.
Hashem knows human nature; He created it. We tend to be self-centered. That is why Hashem commands us to recognize the one who is blind; do not put an obstacle in her path, Ani Hashem. I am Hashem who knows you; that is why I need to remind you about this.
Consider the one who is deaf; do not curse him, Ani Hashem. I am Hashem who knows you, that is why I need to remind you about this.
Welcome the stranger, love him like you love yourself, Ani Hashem. I am Hashem, and even though you were a stranger once yourself and you know how it feels, I know you need a reminder about that, too.
Think about the single person; invite her to a meal. Think about your neighbor who lives alone; invite him to a movie.
Shabbat Shalem is coming to an end. Through my reflection and effort to find my voice to share with you I now have a better understanding of where I am and where I need to go as a person and as a Jew.
As Federation promotes these initiatives and as shuls embrace them, we create opportunities for us as holy institutions to reflect on where we are and where we need to go.
And now I also appreciate why we need reminders like Shabbat Shalem—it’s because we are human.
And that, I guess, is the point. We are all human.
By Robert Lichtman
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange and is the chief Jewish learning officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.