Thank you, Cantor Spilker, for that introduction and thank you all for being here tonight. It is an honor to be speaking during this Shabbat as we recognize Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. I first want to take a moment to thank my fellow members of the Accessibility & Inclusion Committee and the many others who have contributed their passion, energy, and talents to furthering the work of disability inclusion at Mount Zion.
Our Torah portion this week is Mishpatim, which lays out a series of laws and moral imperatives for the people of Israel. As I was reading over the portion and thinking about this talk, I was struck by the following words:
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)
In fact, commands regarding the just treatment of the stranger appear no fewer than 36 times in the Torah. Clearly, this is something that calls for our attention.
So, who is the stranger?
As we observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, I think about who we as a society consider strangers and who we, consequently, often fail to include – sending the message that they don’t belong. I think of people living in poverty, the elderly, people of color, people of various gender identities and sexual orientations.
People society sees as “strangers” also often includes those with disabilities, a category that is very broad. Disabilities may be physical or mental, visible or invisible. Any person we meet – on the street or in school, or at a Shabbat service – may be living with a disability. Every person’s experience is unique, but unfortunately the experience of being excluded or “othered” is shared by many.
We know we should treat the stranger with kindness, but how do we do it? Perhaps it may be helpful to reframe, to look at disability and inclusion from a different perspective: as an issue of social justice, or, as disability advocate Rabbi Ruti Regan – the first openly autistic person to be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary – says, an issue of “Jewish justice.”
Other inclusion advocates like Pamela Schuller, who was previously the Scholar-in-Residence here at Mount Zion, make a similar point, distinguishing between thinking about disability inclusion work as mitzvah or charity and disability inclusion work as tzedek or justice. As Schuller writes in her Op-Ed “I’m not your mitzvah project”:
It is not a mitzvah to let me in the door…Opening your door to those with disabilities is (a start but it) is not enough…there is a critical difference between tolerance and full inclusion. If we are practicing full inclusion, our communities should be celebrating each person and what they bring to the community, not just what they demand of it.
In addition to my role on the Accessibility and Inclusion Committee, (as Cantor Spilker mentioned) I am currently studying mental health and substance use disorder counseling, where the issue of language, stereotypes, and stigma is very apparent. For example, if we talk about someone as a substance abuser, a junkie, or a schizophrenic, we are more likely to perceive them negatively – to see them as other – and to support policies that punish, shame, and exclude them from our communities. Instead, we can remember that people are not their disabilities but human beings – perhaps a person with substance use disorder or with schizophrenia.
The majority of people who end up in our treatment systems for mental health and substance use disorders are not bad or immoral people. They are people who have often experienced a great deal of trauma. They are people who need compassion, opportunities, and resources – and respect for their inherent human dignity. And, they need to be included – to belong to a community. This is an issue of social justice. Of Jewish justice.
As noted, this week’s Torah portion teaches that we are not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Being “the other” is something I can also understand, personally, as someone who has struggled with my own mental health. Perhaps this in part is what makes me especially sensitive to the language we use about the stranger, the “other” – language that suggests that people with mental health disorders, with substance use disorders, with physical disabilities are “someone else” – not us or our loved ones, but other people.
In fact, this is not the case. A report by the World Health Organization states that nearly 30% of adults in the U.S. – nearly one in three – experience a mental health disorder in any given year. These are our friends, our colleagues, our family members. They are me.
As we age, most of us will deal with some sort of physical disability or health condition, and if that happens, we will want quality healthcare. We will want to be treated with compassion and respect and feel like we belong. And, we deserve to. Remember, this is an issue of social justice – and of Jewish justice.
But what can we actually do to be a more accessible community and help to build a culture of inclusion? While awareness is a first step, we also need action.
Shanna Kattari, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work who researches disability, emphasizes the need to avoid treating accessibility and inclusion as an afterthought. Kattari writes, “If we truly want to encourage all Jews to participate fully in Jewish community and culture, we have to create spaces that give access information up front (including where accessible parking is, whether there are barriers, if interpreters are available, who to contact about food needs, etc.), and we need to be thoughtful about what it means to truly welcome disabled Jews in our Jewish spaces.”
It can be easy to fear that the work of inclusion is too big, too intimidating, and too resource-intensive. But in fact, it doesn’t have to be. In a report called Synagogues for all Abilities: A Study on Being Inclusive, the UJA Federation of New York identified factors that contribute to successful accessibility and inclusion efforts in synagogues.
“The central finding of this report is that meaningful, sustainable change in the area of disability inclusion need not be significantly time–consuming nor cost–prohibitive. In fact, there are many simple, cost-effective ways to increase accessibility that will help to shape the inclusive culture of the synagogue community.”
I am proud to say that over the past several years Mount Zion has already made significant strides in many areas of disability inclusion. In fact, in 2015 Mount Zion was recognized at the Reform Movement Biennial for its disability accessibility and inclusion efforts with an Exemplar Congregation award. However, there is always more we can do, especially as a congregation that is committed to issues of social justice. What would it look like if – as we continue to expand disability inclusion inside the walls of the synagogue – we also take these issues of social justice further and speak to the larger issues of disability inclusion in our country? This is a goal for us to work toward.
Lastly, a few final points from the UJA Federation study. First, that disability inclusion work is an ongoing process that has no distinct end but continues to evolve along with the needs of the congregation. And, an important part of inclusion work is making sure that your community knows the work you care about – what you are doing, what you have done, and what you hope yet to do. I hope you’ve learned a little about this work tonight.
I’d like to end with another important point:
No one person within a congregation can effect sustainable change on their own.
Indeed, the report notes the critical nature of engaging both committed lay leaders and professionals in the work of disability inclusion. This may not be easy. “Luckily,” as Rabbi Regan says, “we’re Jews, and Jewish culture has a lot of wisdom about doing hard things. As it says in the Mishnah, ‘It is not upon you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.’”
And, this work also has many rewards.
Ultimately, as Pamela Schuller writes, “when we have a community that appreciates each person and what that person brings…the entire community benefits. A fully inclusive community is celebrating the unique qualities that everyone brings to the table, creating a safer and stronger community…of trust where people can be uniquely themselves.” Through this process of inclusion work – this process of Jewish justice – we are striving to create that strong and trusting community where people can be “uniquely themselves.” I hope you’ll consider joining us in this important work.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.