February has been designated as National American Inclusion Month, a program embraced by Yachad and the OU to focus on raising awareness and developing sensitivity to what it means to live with disabilities. Now, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale built ramps before anyone else did. We have ramps leading up to the lobby, a Shabbat elevator, and a ramp up to the bimah in the main sanctuary.
But then, a few months ago, I read an eye opening and heart wrenching article by 2 of our beloved leaders of the community— calling for the larger Jewish community to do better:
They wrote: “We have been forced to accept that we will not find a place for our children in the Jewish day schools, but we can no longer tolerate that this extends to our synagogues as well. For our children, inclusion in the prayer services and programming at synagogue is a last chance to be part of the Jewish community, and they are being pushed out with both hands.”
In essence, they implied, ramps are just not inclusive enough. You see, it’s simpler to accommodate those who are confronted with physical disabilities. However, there are many people, children in particular, who suffer from invisible disabilities—who have no obvious physical impediments, and to the outside observer seem “typical.” And yet, these children may struggle to fit into social situations, or struggle to keep up in school.
It is these children who often cannot control their actions in shul. Who are perceived as acting inappropriately or who cannot figure out how to whisper. And it is these parents, who don’t feel welcome—opting to not to bring their children to shul, despite being desperate to inject them with some Jewish content and spirituality, lest people stare disapprovingly at the parent or child. I learned about one family whose children refuse to step foot into shul after being chastised by another parent.
Invisible disabilities are just that—it is hard for us to know when a child is being purposefully mischievous OR if it’s a child who cannot control their impulses. And as a community, we have an obligation to rise above our knee jerk reaction to judge and criticize children and parents. We must become sensitized to the needs of families who have invisible disabilities, so that our bayit is more than a shul with ramps.
Lat week, we read about the “Mizbeach adamah” the alter of the ground. One can also translate adamah from its root adam—the alter of the person. This alter, one in which a ramp is required to ascend, is a metaphor for people—and is a message to each of us how we should strive to treat the mizbeach adamah—how to be sensitive to our fellow peers.
The article in the Jewish week—which brought to light the Jewish community’s lack of sensitivity to children with invisible disabilities was an important wakeup call for me. It spurred me to begin talking to families with children with disabilities. We have to try harder. Our shul has begun to implement a few solutions—last week we launched an early tefilah that caters to the needs of many of our children, lead by an expert in the field of invisible disabilities. We are trying to become sensitive to tweaking our current youth programming to accommodate the needs of all our children. But we still have a long way to go, and much to learn.
There’s a debate within families who have children with disabilities about whether it is best to provide additional programming that specifically meet the needs of these children, or to find a way to make all children feel welcomed and embraced in any program. And perhaps the ideal is for all of us—with all of our limitations—and we each have them should be able to gather together in one space. At least this seems to be the model of Sinai. There’s a famous midrash that describes that at the moment of revelation at Sinai, all the blind could see and the deaf could here. I can’t help but wonder… were these people actually cured—did the fire and brimstone—the shofar blasts and the thunder cure everyone’s disabilities? Or at that moment of heightened spiritual purity—all of God’s creations—with or without a disability, were seen by god as whole, as shalem—bzeom elokim, in gd’s likeness.
We don’t know if they were cured, but Sinai was a true model of an inclusive experience. There was a way for EVERYONE to access the revelation and that is what we should strive to achieve. We can’t make the deaf hear and blind see, and we can’t make those who struggle to sit for 45 min sit—but we can attempt to create a bayit that meets each of us where we are.
And so friends, National Inclusion Month is a small attempt to help sensitize each of us to the visible and invisible needs of our community. It’s an attempt to remind us not to shush so quickly, those children around us, without understanding the needs of the child that we are shushing. It’s an attempt to understand the variety of people that makes our community that much richer, and try to reach out and embrace those who have different struggles. Our goal is to make the bayit an experience of Sinai—accessible for all. We do have physical ramps, ensuring greater accessible to people. But we must not forget the meaning behind the ramps—the need to have a deep sensitivity to needs of others, specially those with invisible disabilities.
In doing so, we can only be lifted higher.