Inclusion, at its most basic level, refers to equal opportunity for participation by members of a certain group, community, or society. Over the past 50+ years, advocates for inclusion have led the way for legal and societal shifts that allow for more complete participation in society by previously marginalized groups, especially for those with mental or physical disabilities. Despite vast advances around the world, principles of inclusion must often be revisited to ensure that, as a society, we are doing the best we can to honor the fundamental rights of each member of our communities. As Israel opens up, there are at least three areas where we need to do better.
As coronavirus cases in Israel dropped, the government moved to reopen schools, allowing children to learn and parents to get back to work. What was meant to be a gradual process of reintroducing small groups into schools was hastened when new infections remained low. Teachers, who had been doing their best to continue their curriculum over digital platforms, returned their focus to classroom-based instruction, and per the Ministry of Education, online classes ceased. After a few weeks, the whole school system had returned to normal.
Except it hadn’t. Based on anecdotal reports, somewhere between 10-15% of students did not return to school; parents, justifiably as it turns out, were concerned that schools would be hotbeds for new infections, and they were not prepared to risk infection by sending their children back. And who knows each child’s circumstance—maybe he lives with a parent or grandparent who is particularly at risk? Maybe the child herself has significant health concerns? Maybe parents have such severe anxiety that they cannot function if their child is in school? Teachers often did their best to post what material was covered, but these children did not receive formal instruction for months, and are at risk of falling behind their peers.
All children have a right to education. It is profoundly unfair to these students, and their parents, to force them to choose between significantly increasing their risk of infection and receiving an education. The government needs to do more to ensure that these children, whose parents are unable or unwilling to send to school due to legitimate concerns, receive the education that they deserve.
The data continue to show that being older is among the most significant risk factors for mortality from the coronavirus. As a result, many governments, businesses, and other institutions looking to reopen have made the following recommendation: if you’re over 65, please don’t show up. On its surface, this makes sense—the economy can return with relative safety with those who are younger, and those who are at greater risk should avoid putting themselves in harm’s way. Religious institutions, as well, have attempted to reopen in similar ways—there are sign up sheets for attendance, and requests that those who are older not participate.
While this approach is certainly meant to protect the health of the vulnerable, it also violates the fundamental social responsibility to ensure that all of our community members can be participants in society. And this exclusion is affecting a huge number of people; according to estimates, 16% of the United States’ and 12% of Israel’s population are over the age of 65. A group whose access to children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren is already curtailed, are now being told that they may not come to work, cannot attend religious services, and may not go to gyms or other recreational activities. Some services have found ways to accommodate their needs, like supermarkets opening special hours for older adults, but many institutions have chosen to simply instruct older adults to stay home. More resources and focus need to be allocated to develop creative solutions to allow for older adults to be able to more fully participate in society in ways that also keep their risk of infection low; excluding them in the name of public health is not a fair option.
Women in Orthodox Jewish synagogues
To fully conduct services in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, a quorum of 10 males over the age of 13, collectively called a minyan, must be present. Indeed, praying with a minyan is considered a religious obligation for men. This reality of halacha has led some synagogue who are allowed to open at reduced capacity to do so using the following logic: since men have an obligation to attend the minyan and women do not, the synagogue will prioritize men’s attendance over women’s. As such, many synagogues have closed their doors to women for the foreseeable future, as they struggle to accommodate even the number of men who would like to attend services.
Others have debated the halachic reasoning that leads to this decision, but from the perspective of creating an inclusive community, this categorical stance is hard to accept. Of course, an Orthodox Jewish service cannot function without a minyan; nevertheless, for person number 11 and upward, one wonders whether obligation vs. no obligation is the only factor that should be at play. After all, how many synagogues have policies for the high holiday services that the attendance of those who can pay for seats overrides the consideration that those who are obligated may not be able to attend? Do the synagogues that have not opened up for women also restrict below bar mitzvah age boy from attending? As someone who has seen the remarkable obstacles women who want to say kaddish have to contend with under normal circumstances, I can only imagine the frustration these women must feel as others’ interests are again prioritized over their own.
Would efforts toward inclusion for children, older adults, and women cost more money? Probably, but so do buildings with disability access, smaller classroom for children with special needs, and many other necessary components of our society’s legal and social mandate for inclusion. Halacha and common decency demand great sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable, and this is a lesson that requires rededication at times of communal distress. As we benefit from the reopening world, let us make sure that we do not leave others behind in our haste to return to normal life.