Sunday, October 4, 2015

V'Zot haBerachah 5776, October 2015, Inclusion

Devarim 33:4
 תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

The Torah's last parsha, read on Simchat Torah (also Shemini Atzeret in Israel), is a blessing from Moshe Rabbeinu clearly directed to all of the family of Israel, every man, woman, and child. Everyone was included without exception. Whether they were the greatest tzaddikim, the least, the newborn, the zakein, they were included in Moshe's thoughts and prayers, and were part of his kehila. The Torah was commanded to US, every single one of us, by Moshe. It is an inheritance to the community of Yaakov, every single member of the community of Yaakov.

I am going to depart from my usual source-based discussion this week because this brings great pain to my own life. Today, our communities simply are not that inclusive to so many with disabilities, especially developmental, learning, or invisible disabilities, and it feels to me as though the Torah is telling us in wrapping up all its law that we must include every Jew, with joy and open hearts. Moshe Rabbeinu made no exceptions: we must provide a Jewish inclusive community for everyone, no matter what their ability or disability.
Getting her to her own bat mitzvah
celebration was only a small step

Let me first differentiate between accessibility and inclusion. Having wheelchair ramps, floor level bimahs, clear lines of sight, wide doorways, are all aspects of accessibility, allowing those with disabilities to enter the physical presence of the space they wish to access. They are critical, they require thought, they are not always obvious. But implementing accessibility is not inclusion.

I myself seen a young adult's family informed that they are not welcome at High Holiday services due to the disruption someone felt the youth caused to that other person's davenning (despite the fact that this same youth had been repeatedly asked to attend services to ensure a minyan would be present); a child with a speech impediment informed on Yom Kippur that a school bully had forbidden all other children from playing with that child at all; a small child's family assured that babysitters would take good care to ensure he didn't elope into danger only to have that occur within minutes; a young adult with intellectual and developmental disabilities publicly humiliated by being told that if he wouldn't lead davenning it must be because he had been "poorly educated."  These are just a few incidents I personally have seen or know directly have occurred.

Every one of these four children has a serious medical, developmental,
psychiatric, and/or intellectual disability. You wouldn't pick them out
of a crowd of children as the ones with disabilities, yet they have them.
Did you know that when people drum and pound on furniture during tefillah, it causes actual physical pain to some with sensory integration dysfunction or with synesthesia? That crowded spaces and children running out of control within those spaces can cause severe anxiety in those with many conditions (including intellectual, developmental, psychiatric, and medical disabilities) and can exacerbate necessary attempts to gain control of the environment for some? That there are those who chose not to dance on Simchas Torah for any variety of hidden disability related reasons varying from pain to poor coordination to dizziness and more? That boys with severe learning disabilities may simply not be able to leyn because they are already spending dozens of hours a week just trying to read in English the necessary material for school basics, but may be embarrassed to explain this?

Of course no one set of board members, rabbinic leaders, children's group leaders, or others can know the potential effect of every decision and every moment's actions for those with disabilities around them. That's impossible. What is necessary though is to remember to consider it, particularly if someone seems to have a negative response. The person not dancing, leaving the bais medrash when pounding on the bima begins, no longer attending synagogue at all; the child alone in the corner or running into every stationary object, these are not people rejecting the community. These are people abandoned or even rejected by the community if the community is not aware of the reasons for their behavior and the fact that the behavior is in fact caused by the community itself, for good or bad.

This may sound harsh, and it is. But the treatment I have seen those with disabilities receive from the Jewish community in the last few decades is itself terribly harsh. It is also not at all in keeping with the Torah, and particularly this parsha which is meant to bring the entire Torah into our hearts. All of our hearts. I wish everyone, everyone, a lively and joyful Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written and could be written for everyone. As a teacher, I see the same issues with the children I work with. As for my myself, I have hidden problems with food allergies and migraines. People aren't aware of issues that are all around us. A child may be deathly allergic to peanuts so we have to have a peanut free school or we have children that wear headsets to muffle noise that may otherwise cause a seizure. Excellent article for schools and any community. People need awareness.