Standing up to Pharaoh, Moses proudly proclaims: “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord’s festival” (Exodus 10:9). Moses’ objective was clear, Passover was not reserved for the elders, nor was it to be watered down, meant only for children, rather everyone would participate in the community’s religious life.
In just a few days, we will once again gather to celebrate the Exodus and retell the story of our people’s liberation and redemption. As anyone who has been a guest at or led a Passover seder can attest, it is incredibly challenging to create an experience that is simultaneously relevant for people of different ages, different levels of Jewish connection, or different abilities. Either the seder is too “juvenile” and adults disconnect or the seder is too “cerebral” and children are left to pushing their haroset around their dinner plate. In an attempt to live up to Moshe’s vision of inclusivity, at my family’s seder, we sing entertaining parodies, provide different Haggadot (books to help run the seder), and decorate the seder table with toys, trivia cards, and trinkets in the hopes that everyone will be engaged.
Those who advocate for inclusion at synagogues and other Jewish organizations face similar challenges. How does one make inclusion an issue that “all…young and old…sons and daughters” will find compelling? How do we raise awareness not only in a Religious School, but also in an Adult Education Committee? How does inclusion become part of the conversation in an Israel Committee or in a Kitchen Committee? In short, how do we make inclusion everyone’s issue?
In an effort to make February’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) bigger and more successful than ever, my shul, Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA hosted six different programs that incorporated various committees and targeted different demographics to address physical, cognitive, and learning differences. No longer was it solely the responsibility of the Inclusion Committee, but rather part of our congregation’s social programs, religious services, and Religious School.
Mahaneh Emunah (Camp Emunah)
A week before JDAM officially got underway, Temple Emunah hosted the third of its five Mahaneh Emunah Friday night Shabbat services. Although nearly identical to the weekly Shabbat service in terms of liturgy, music, and accommodations (ear plugs, quiet space, etc.…), these services were followed by a communal dinner and took place in the social hall, which provided additional space for dancing, praying, or taking a break from the program. We also provided snacks before the service to acclimate our guests and read stories to young children during the ma’ariv (evening) service. This particular Mahaneh Emunah was paired with our third and fourth grade overnight at the shul. As a result, this Friday night service included our Shabbat regulars, Mahaneh Emunah guests, and more than 20 third and fourth graders. All told, over 100 souls celebrating Shabbat together through song, dance, and prayer.
Inclusive Tu B’shvat Seder
On the 15th of Shvat, Jews around the world celebrated Tu B’shvat. In addition to focusing on the agricultural aspects of the holiday, this year, our Religious School hosted an inclusion-focused seder. Students had the opportunity to examine the similarities and differences between different fruits. For example, how are Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, and Gala apples similar and different and how are white grapefruit, pink grapefruit, navel oranges, and a pomelo similar and different. Students then synthesized that information to the similarities and differences among people. Through this process, students were able to address issues of inclusion without making it the direct focus of the afternoon. Incidentally, the following week, when the same class toured the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim, one student asked, ‘how does someone who is unable to walk or in a wheelchair go to the mikveh?’ All of a sudden, students started seeing inclusion opportunities in other Jewish experiences (by the way: Mayyim Hayyim has a chair lift.)
Never Ever Ever
The next day, the Inclusion Committee partnered with Temple Emunah’s Sisterhood and the Religious School to bring the Israeli Stage’s one-person play, Never Ever Ever, about dyslexia for adults and teens. In order to garner the largest audiences, Temple Emunah offered two performances. The first show was reserved for our seventh through twelfth graders and the second show was open to the entire community. Following each show, the audience discussed and shared their personal challenges with hidden disabilities as compared with more perceptible differences. While the program was initiated by the Sisterhood, its partnership with the Inclusion Committee and the Religious School resulted in bringing awareness of dyslexia to the entire congregation’s attention.
Understanding Our Differences
In order to sensitize our students to the needs of different learners, we piloted a unit concerning hearing loss from the Understanding Our Differences curriculum, a disability awareness program. This curriculum developed over thirty years ago by parents in Newton, MA for use in the public schools is now being made available through the generous support of the Ruderman Family Foundation and distributed by Gateways. This program, while hosted in the Religious School, was featured on the cover of our monthly newsletter and demonstrates the importance of seeking outside partner organizations to advance this important agenda.
On February 21st, we invited Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein and Jason Harris to speak to our community during the Shabbat morning service. Although taking place during a school vacation week, the synagogue was packed with shul members and members of the community affiliated with organizations related to visual impairment (we invited many local agencies to advertise the program). Justice Bernstein is the first blind judge to serve on a state supreme court and Jason Harris created a website known as jasonsconnection.org that creates “an online community that connects people experiencing disability and their family/caregivers to quality resources, support and each other.” Their stories were inspirational and both remained in the synagogue during kiddush (lunch following services) to answer questions. Addressing autism and visual impairment from the bimah allowed the entire congregation to learn about these topics that affect so many in our community. Additionally, opening this conversation created a safe space for congregants to share their personal stories, resources, and support for one another.
Inclusion Theme Minyan
For the past several years, Temple Emunah has hosted “theme minyan” services, which bring together people with common interests or shared backgrounds. For example, last year we hosted MIT night, CUNY college night, and Speakers of Another Language Night. These minyanim give congregants the opportunity to connect with others and deepen existing relationships. As the final program for JDAM, the Inclusion Committee sponsored a theme minyan to talk about inclusion at Temple Emunah. Following evening services, Temple Emunah’s Inclusion Committee chair, Sandy Miller-Jacobs, facilitated a discussion related to the opportunities and challenges of creating a fully inclusive and accessible Temple Emunah. From this meeting sprang new ideas, greater awareness of the committee’s initiatives, and an opportunity for people to feel and know that they belong.
Unlike schools or common interest groups, the synagogue is in a unique position to raise awareness about inclusion in that it is comprised of people of different ages, socio-economic backgrounds, education, and abilities. While we work on issues of inclusion year-round, our activities during the month of February allowed us to make it a congregational focus for several weeks.
As we sit at our seders in just a few days, I encourage us to take up the difficult task of creating Jewish experiences and spaces that are fully inclusive. We must develop sederim that are engaging for adults and children, accessible to those who have a strong familiarity with Judaism and those who are searching, and for those who have different needs and challenges. For in doing so, we have the chance to experience an Exodus closer to the one led by Moses and in the process, bring us all one step closer to redemption.