Passover is one of the ultimate moments of inclusion in Jewish tradition. It was the moment when we became a people. Each and every individual who chose to leave Egypt and experience the revelation at Mount Sinai contributed to the experience of our people.
We often cite the example the Four Sons recounted during the Passover Seder. We are obliged to teach our children the story, and the sons are often equated with different learning styles and the types of accommodations and supports we can provide, in essence differentiated instruction. The Seder must be accessible to all, regardless of their intellectual abilities or emotional condition. We are told in the service, “In every generation and generation, each person is obliged to see themselves as if they themselves went out of Egypt.” Everyone needs to understand the Passover narrative in their own way, and share their own perspective. That is how we maintain a living tradition that is ever evolving to include and engage all. We need to take this approach to heart, and be flexible in how we conduct our Seder.
But for me, an even more compelling theme is identified at the start of the Seder, Ha Lachma: The Bread of Affliction. The text says Kol Dikhfin Yestse VeYekhul, Kol Ditzrikh Yetste V’Yifsakh, All who are hungry come and eat, all who are in need come and celebrate the Pesach with us.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik says that the word ditzrikh refers to one who is alone, without connection to home or family or community. To be included, those ditzrikh – in need, are invited to celebrate with us. There is no distinction made by ability or appearance. And we know that the most important aspect of inclusion is the development of relationships. Knowing each other, celebrating together, and ultimately seeing what someone can offer, not their limitations.
But what does this mean in practice? We can say we wish to be inclusive, and even offer to accommodate people’s needs, but do we really mean it? In my work in synagogues and institutions, I have found that our attitudes and fears get in the way. We often focus on the disability rather than on the person.
Last year, I asked a friend what he was doing for Seder. He told me that he was still looking into where to go and was exploring communal seders in his area. He preferred to join his extended family but it was an awkward time, and beyond that, he is in a wheelchair and they were not comfortable getting him up the steps into their house and would have had to arrange for his travel and housing. I immediately said, “Why don’t you join our family?” And then, after experiencing a moment of slight panic, I asked, “And what do I need to do for you to join us?” After some discussion, it became a learning experience for me to borrow a portable ramp from a local synagogue and recruit family members as spotters by the stairs. It was an even greater learning experience to calm the fears of my own extended family about what they assumed were my friend’s needs. What we gained was a charming and stimulating companion who liked to discuss Torah and who loved the Brisket. And all it took to make a new family friend and enrich our Passover experience was NOT stopping to think about the potential obstacles.
On an institutional level, I have worked with planners across the country who were fearful of raising expectations and not having the resources to meet those expectations. They often would only engage in cosmetic attempts to include those with disabilities in community life. Or they would assume that providing supports for a particular population was impossible or prohibitively expensive without assessing the need, reaching out to those affected, considering what the benefits might be to the community, and exploring how it could work.
I believe that this discomfort comes from a lack of connection to people. From seeing the disability rather than what the person has to offer. Whether individually or communally, I also believe that all we need to do to really effect change is to go forth from Mitzrayim, a word that means “the Narrow Place,” and open ourselves to think differently. Simply not being afraid to engage with people, to offer them a place and a voice, and to open ourselves to what they have to contribute. It is a lesson that goes far beyond disabilities inclusion, to the heart of who we are as a community and how we secure Jewish continuity.
As Rabbi Soloveitchik said: “Ha Lakhma Anya is the renewal of a pledge of solidarity between individual and individual and between the individual and the Jewish community as a whole. It is a proclamation that we are one people, and that we are ready to help one another. Pesach night is a time of sharing; if the sense of solidarity, responsibility, unity and readiness to share and to participate are not manifested and demonstrated, the whole Seder becomes meaningless.”
This year, consider opening your seder, your synagogue or your organization to someone ditzrikh, in need of connection to community, to those with disabilities who might need such a connection even if your first reaction is fear or uncertainty. You won’t regret it. And we will all benefit.
Chag Kasher V’Sameakh – best wishes for a happy Passover.
Written by Ed Frim, former Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning, is 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.