Netanel Paley
Jewish Disabilities Advocate

Belonging, not inclusion: A lesson from Cecil and David Rosenthal

Inclusion. Inclusion. Inclusion. We hear this word constantly in relation to people with disabilities and their participation in our communities’ religious and social life. Inclusive programming, inclusive shabbatons, inclusive classrooms, inclusive summer camps. Inclusion has become the be-all-end-all for many people and organizations who want to help people with disabilities lead happy and fulfilling lives.

There is, of course, no question that all of these people sincerely want to help people with disabilities, and that some of these programs bring happiness and fulfillment to the latter. As is their objective, they put into action the fundamental values of community and human equity by bringing people with and without disabilities together and “normalizing” interaction and friendship among everyone. (I use the word normalizing in quotes because it is already normal for a human being to be friends with another human being regardless of differences, and ideally we would not need any sort of programming to remind us of that).

But because we have become so obsessed with inclusion, we have forgotten what it actually means. Think about it for a second. To include someone, another human being, implies that that human being was, for some reason or another, excluded first. That’s why inclusion makes sense in public schools, in the workplace, and in the public sphere in general – because, unfortunately, our society is constructed in such a way that it implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, excludes. But it doesn’t make sense in the Jewish community. Who, in our community, is excluding people with disabilities as a matter of principle? No one. Our communities exclude people with disabilities because people forget about them, because people aren’t aware that they want to participate in our religious and social activities, because people aren’t willing to invest time, money, or effort to accommodate them. So when we say we want to include people with disabilities, we are really revealing the underlying exclusionary character of our communal institutions and social groups. Because you can’t include if you don’t exclude first.

The impact this has had on our efforts to build community with people with disabilities, and on our conception of fundamental Jewish values, is difficult to overstate. First, it has led to the aforementioned enshrinement of inclusion as the ultimate goal, which itself has given way to a laissez-faire attitude regarding programming for individuals with disabilities. If an event or program is “inclusive”, such as a “circle-time” activity at a Shabbaton, regardless if such an activity is enjoyable for all participants or if it befits their capabilities, then it has accomplished its goal. It matters not whether the people without disabilities “advising” those with disabilities have adequate sensitivity training, or whether there are activities carefully and intentionally designed to facilitate socialization with community members. As long as we can slap an “inclusion” label on it, it is assumed to be beneficial and fulfilling for the individuals with disabilities who participate in it.

The second, and in my opinion more damaging, effect of the inclusion approach is its definition as an act of kindness in its own right. “Volunteering” with people with disabilities has become a selfless expression of infinite good. People pat themselves on the back for going on a Shabbaton, or for participating in a fun activity – ultimately detaching the act from the real people it is supposed to help and thus limiting the possibility of real relationships. Worse, high school students participate in such activities to fulfill “Chesed hours”, a profound disrespect that would surely distress the recipients of this “Chesed” if they found out. How would you feel if you found out that the new friend you just met thinks of you as a Chesed case?

This attitude could not be further from our Torah’s values of human dignity and kindness. The accommodation of all people in our community is an *obligation*, not some voluntary Chesed we do in our spare time. Yes, God commands us to be kind to the stranger, the widow, and the orphan – a commandment that should be obvious to us from our inborn kindness and sensitivity – but He also commands us not to kill or steal. The fact that the people who spend meaningful time with people with disabilities are in the minority does not give us a moral high ground; it only gives us more responsibility to help everyone else recognize and fulfill their obligation.

Cecil and David Rosenthal, of blessed memory, taught me that accommodating people with disabilities in our communities is more than just an obligation. At the brothers’ funeral last Tuesday, which I am I grateful that I was able to attend, all of the speakers said that Cecil and David were simply full members of the community. Everyone knew them, everyone loved them, and no one felt the need to “include” them. It was, dare I say, *natural*. Natural that they gave out Siddurim to latecomers every Shabbat, natural that Cecil carried the Torah every Shabbat, natural that they participated in all aspects of religious and communal life at Tree of Life. The values of human life and simply being good to other people are so ingrained in the community of Squirrel Hill that the concept of inclusion was never given a second thought. One only needs to read the powerful words of Jeffrey Solomon, a longtime Squirrel Hill resident and friend of the brothers, to understand this remarkable place: “I didn’t think anything of it. It was my introduction to the fact that there are people like that and they are just like the rest of us.”

The loss of Cecil and David, and all 11 of the special people from Tree of Life, challenges us to reconsider what it means to build a Jewish community in which being friends with people with disabilities is natural, in which people with disabilities feel at home. As Erik Carter, professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, writes in Including People With Disabilities in Faith Communities, “People want to be more than integrated or included. They want to experience true belonging.” The first step in that process is simply to ask. If there are people with disabilities in your community (and there most probably are!), ask them if they want to become more involved in the community, whether in shul or out. Ask them how you can help them. They may not want help, or they may not want to get involved at all. That’s obviously OK too. But so long as we make assumptions about what they need and want, so long as we make assumptions that anything we do for them with good intentions is beneficial, so long as we use the word inclusion without really thinking about what it means, there’s no way we can spread the blessings of Cecil, David, and the entire Squirrel Hill community to ourselves and the rest of the world. With God’s help, may we soon merit to follow the example of Squirrel Hill and successfully build open and loving communities of belonging in which the word “inclusion” is no longer in our communal vocabulary.

About the Author
Netanel Paley is a friend of and advocate for people with disabilities and is pursuing a career working with children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental conditions.
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