As February draws to a close, it is time to look back to consider the Orangetown Jewish Center’s commemoration of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month #JDAIM.
By the end of the month, we will have posted seven spotlights of congregants who have eloquently reflected on lives impacted by disabilities. Rabbi Scheff and I have blogged, taught and reflected in our classes on Jewish values with respect to people who have disabilities. Tonight, congregants will join with our Education Director, Sandy Borowsky, to view and discuss the important film “How Hard Can This Be.”
This coming Shabbat, February 26 and 27 will be dedicated to Disability Awareness as fellow congregant Scott Salmon speaks on Friday evening at 7:00 services. His topic is “Ask Me: the Challenges of Inclusion.” On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Scheff’s sermon will be dedicated to the topic of awareness and inclusion. After kiddush, I will be facilitating a text study tracing Jewish attitudes toward people who are Deaf or hearing impaired from the Torah through Rabbinic texts, leading up to the 2011 watershed Responsa of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards which grants full obligation and rights to Deaf people and which affirms that ASL is a language by which people can fulfill mitzvot.
At the OJC, we have much of which we can be proud. The month of February and #JDAIM, however, will only prove its lasting value if we reflect carefully on what we have learned and continue to strive toward being an ever more inclusive community.
I offer here the lessons that I have learned and look forward to your adding more to my list:
1. “Persons with a Disability” is not a useful catch-all phrase. People are first and foremost people. To paraphrase a powerful idea of the autism advocacy movement, if you know one person who has a disability . . . you know one person who has a disability. We cannot unilaterally provide services “to the disabled” as there is simply no such thing.
2. Along the spectrum of people and their families whose lives are affected by disability, there are those at one end who never identify themselves or their loved ones according to disability. They go about their lives without regard to hearing loss or the inability to walk. At the other end of the spectrum are those whose identity or whose family is subsumed by the insurmountable challenges of disability. I often think of one congregant who said to me, “We can never see a flier of an OJC activity and make plans to go and enjoy. We always must ask ourselves first, ‘What about our child? Will she be able to handle the program? And our answer is usually no. So then we ask ourselves which one of the parents will stay home.'”
3. We owe gratitude to the congregants who opened up their lives to us through their beautiful words in our spotlights. Sharing vulnerability requires courage and strength. (If you would like to write next year, let Rabbi Scheff or me know. If you do not receive emails from the OJC, you can find all of the spotlights on our Facebook page, Orangetown Jewish Center.)
4. Creating circles of inclusion is hard work. It requires the very best of ourselves. It requires us to take risks and step out of our own circles of comfort. But one thing is certain after a month of awareness: We have created a community of safety and thoughtfulness where anything is possible!
Here’s to making February all year long! B’yedidut,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
“Circle time” in my 6th grade classroom is an invaluable teaching tool, especially at the end of the day, after the kids have had 7 hours of public school and another hour of religious school. I ask the students to move the tables against the walls and to pull out their chairs into the center. The students know that something different—maybe even special—is about to happen. A conversation is going to take place. Everyone will be expected to participate. There will be no corners in which to get lost.
When a couple planning a marriage comes to seek my guidance, I ask them if they have ever considered a chuppah in the round. It is certainly non-traditional; the space may not accommodate it; the aisle may not be long enough. But who wants to be in the back row when the friend you love is getting married? And who wants to be the last person standing in a row of bridesmaids, unable to witness the events under the marriage canopy?
Last week, one of my religious school students decided he wasn’t comfortable learning the dance I was teaching in our recess-time elective. Even as I explained that all the best athletes dance for balance, strength and flexibility, I realized that I could not move this boy past the discomfort of joining hands in a circle.
The intimacy of the circle can be discomforting, intimidating, even threatening. In a circle we become vulnerable; we are forced into an encounter, to see and be seen. Frontal presentation is so much safer! I can hide or find solitary space. I can sit up front and see nobody and be distracted by nobody, or sit in the back of the class and be safe from the action.
When we settle for frontal presentation, the best we can be is accommodating. But do we want to settle on being accommodating? Is it enough to make room or create space for someone, even if that space is usually on the corner or at the outskirts where it is convenient, or in the back, at the front or on the side? Most of us find security and comfort in the cushy rows of seats in our sanctuary. If we choose to sit among others, we are surrounded by familiar faces and voices. But those in wheelchairs or with walkers, the elderly and those with other disabilities have to settle for the seats on the fringes and off to the sides. It is difficult for many to slide into the pews and surround themselves by others.
We can learn an important lesson from our mishkan, our portable wilderness sanctuary, which occupied the center of the Israelite camp. The tribes encircled the holy space, directing their energy to the holy center. Situated side by side, no tribe was further away than any other from the sacred space.
Please don’t get me wrong; I love our sanctuary and generally feel that it is a welcoming space. But I have realized during this month of “awareness and inclusion” that we have work to do in consciously creating circles of inclusion. It isn’t indifference that brings us to allow others to settle on the fringes of our space. Part of it is the way we have traditionally created space for prayer, part of it is practicality, and part of it is a lack of awareness. But part of it is also our fear of circles: the fear of facing our own insecurities, our own shortcomings, our own inability to face the other.
Can we welcome one another to the circle? Are we prepared to step in, to hold a hand and to be held, to look upon another and be seen? If we are to achieve true inclusivity in our community and in our personal spaces, we need to create more circles—and open them wide.
If you haven’t been following our “Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month” stories, please check out our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/OrangetownJewishCenter. You will find a series of inspiring “spotlights” featuring members of our community whose stories will touch you and make you think about the things we tend to take for granted. We thank them for their willingness to be part of our circle!
Rabbi Craig Scheff