Circles of inclusion

“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.

circle of people

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.

circle of prayer

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.

circle of hands

If you haven’t been following our “Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month” stories, please check out our Facebook page at 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

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One response to “Circles of inclusion”

  1. Lydia Katz says :

    Truly inspirational. Maybe the Sephardim had something when they put their Bima in the center of the sanctuary . I would love to figure out some way where we would all rotate our seating so we would get to sit near everyone at some time. It is true that it is a warm and welcoming congregation but I am a guilty as everyone else because I habitually sit in the same area. Don’t know how to get around that.

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