A rabbinic call for inclusion of those with disabilities

Today marks the annual observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities originally proclaimed by the UN in 1992. The Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development based in Modiin was established in 2011 with the goal of training Israeli community rabbis in the whole array of skills and issues that are relevant to building, developing and leading community in modern day Israel.

The communal rabbinate, a staple of diaspora life for millennia, was done away with upon the advent of Zionism in favor of Mamlakhtiyut – Statism in English- the idea that the State is to provide all services including religious ones. The Jewish community, long the epicenter of Jewish activity and support, gave way to the State and ceased to function in modern Israel. Most Jews living in the State of Israel do not live in a Jewish community as it has been traditionally understood throughout the ages.  The rabbi, the leader of community throughout Jewish history, ceased to function in this vein in modern Israel. The idea of a full-time pulpit or community rabbi has not existed in Israel since its inception and no practical training is required to receive ordination in Israel today.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a marked return to community living in Israel. Community rabbis are being looked towards to lead locally as individual communities move away from reliance upon the government appointed city rabbis for personal and family related needs.  Barkai was founded as a response to this trend.

One of the issues that Barkai has emphasized in its training and community building is the integration into the community of people with disabilities. A community is only a Jewish community when it is inclusive of all.  The Barkai rabbis undergo an intensive course of study in this topic where they are presented with all of the facts and statistics regarding both physical and mental disabilities. They learn about the various services available to people with disabilities so that they can advise families. They meet with national experts on the topic as well as people with disabilities so that they can learn how they can best be of service to them.  They learn about the most effective ways of raising awareness of the issue in their communities and speaking about it from their pulpits.  At the conclusion of the course they are tasked with preparing a final project which advances integration in their own community.

The one of its kind course for Orthodox community rabbis in Israel was developed by Barkai in consonance with professional of Israel Unlimited – a partnership of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Ruderman Foundation and the Government of Israel.  Israel Unlimited is the leading incubator of programs and services for people with disabilities in Israel. We have heard about the great success of some of these projects.  We are constantly hearing wonderful anecdotes about how people with disabilities are becoming more integrated and involved in Barkai communities throughout Israel.

On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the 80 rabbis of Barkai and their communities call upon all communities and synagogues in the State of Israel to work towards the greater integration of people with disabilities.  We believe passionately that we should focus on people’s abilities and not their disabilities. Only when all people are included in our communities will they be the just communities that we hope and pray them to be.

About the Author
Rabbi David Fine is the Founder and Dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Modiin, Israel. He was a pulpit rabbi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Overland Park, Kansas before making Aliyah in 2008.
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