The Jewish Value We Need To Remember

It is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Let’s begin with a story from the Talmud, (Taanit 20:a-b).

“Rabbi Elazar was coming from the house of his teacher, elated from studying Torah. He met a very ugly man, who said, “Peace be upon you, my master!” R. Elazar did not return his greeting but instead said, “How ugly this person is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?”  “I do not know,” said the man. “But go to the craftsman who made me, and say: How ugly is the vessel which you have made!”  R. Elazar realized he had done wrong, and asked forgiveness. But the man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.'”… Soon after R. Elazar taught: “A person should always be pliant as the reed, and never as hard as the cedar. For this reason the reed merited to be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, tefillin and mezuzot.”

We are all created by God, in God’s image.  In order to be truly inclusive, we need to be open and flexible, not judgmental. We need to be willing to compromise to realize the benefits of allowing all to contribute. We are each created in God’s image, imperfect, broken, and valuable.

Our Jewish community has done a lot to support and include people with disabilities. But we often fall into the trap of treating our efforts as Tzedakah or Social Services. The Jewish value we need to remember is Kvod HaBriyot – honoring and respecting each individual as God’s creation. Inclusion is a Human Right and a Jewish Obligation.  Inclusion is about allowing people to contribute, not just to provide charity or services to them. We need to validate the worth of every individual.  Think about this quote from a self-advocate: “I do not want to be someone else’s Tzedakah project!”

Our institutions and synagogues can be a powerful source of social capital based on the relationships we develop. People with disabilities often do not have those relationships, and find it difficult to develop the social capital that helps in finding jobs or a place to live, or a sense of belonging. Asking if someone needs accommodation or support to be present is only the start. Empowering each individual to contribute is the goal. For their sake and for ours.

To conclude, some questions (Answers for the next Blog!):

  • What would our synagogues, agencies, schools and social groups look like if we took for granted that ALL of those who desire could contribute as they wish and where they wish?
  • How many people with disabilities are in leadership roles in our community? How do we engage people with disabilities as leaders, and give them a voice so that we may work together to make the decisions that shape our communities and institutions?
  • How do we engage with those with disabilities, and understand what they can contribute?
  • How do we engage with and educate the community to understand that this is not a problem with a programmatic solution, but rather a question of the character of our relationships with each other, and the obligations we take for granted towards each other?

So for JDAIM, let’s try to act on the lesson that Rabbi Elazar learned (the hard way!).   Let’s start with some honest self-reflection, and then work to change our own world view and the culture of our community. That’s how we will realize the benefits of allowing all to contribute. – 7 Shevat 5777

This post written by Ed Frim, former Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning, and currently an independent consultant based in Pittsburgh, working in the area of disabilities inclusion nationally as the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Specialists and with Chicago’s Jewish Federation and JCFS/Encompass as Inclusion Specialist.

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