On Jan. 20, 2009 our 4-year-old daughter forced my husband and me to retrofit spectacles of prejudice.
What do I mean by that? That was the day on which Barack Obama was sworn into office, and as my husband and I watched the festivities unfold on television, Evie could not stop asking why so many people, especially those of color, were crying. She pushed, “Why are they sad, Mommy?” “Isn’t this a happy day? They get to see the president.”
I attempted to describe how not long ago, in America, there were people who believed that a black person could not be president. I added that these people who were crying were told that message all of their lives, yet now they were watching history change. She looked at me puzzled; the past was incomprehensible to her innocent mind.
Embarrassingly, within the context of our own Jewish community, there are still archaic projections placed upon people that violate basic civil rights. As recently as last week, many of us read an account of a family struggling with issues of inclusion within a Jewish summer camp. Instead of weighing in on the specifics of this particular case, allow me to posit two critical observations:
First, often it is through a crisis or grand misstep rather than calm that awareness and action are catalyzed. Often these situations open our eyes to the challenges and possibilities that surround us daily. There is growth through challenge.
Second, we have come a long way in including all learners and people with challenges in the Jewish arena. But we still have much work to do. Making sure every person, created in God’s image, has a place in every part of the Jewish world is imperative and is a civil right.
To be sure, there are critical discussions within the Jewish community to be had around inclusion with regard to gender roles, homosexuality and the like. I would like to focus on how we, collectively, can — with a clearer conscience and up-to-date lenses — view the inclusion of people with special needs.
Three Necessary Shifts in Supporting Everyone’s Needs:
Education: It must be mandated by the start of the 2012-2013 school year that every student enrolled in rabbinical school, cantorial school, master’s degree programs in Jewish education and beyond must gain exposure to and preparatory experience with the issue of special needs in the Jewish community. If these future leaders of all denominations are aware of basic information, resources, biblical and Rabbinic mandates to include everyone, then conversations with and about people with disabilities can and will happen in an open, supportive and collaborative manner. Clergy, day school principals, camp directors and synagogue education directors do not have to have all the answers. They do, however, have to accept responsibility for being a partner in the discussion. Inclusion can only happen when leaders insist upon it.
Empowerment: Every synagogue, JCC, day school, camp, and the like must have a learning specialist on staff. The gap between the ideal of inclusion and reality will close only when professionals who are experienced with and knowledgeable about special supports are working in concert with other stakeholders in a community. This person can be a paid professional or a volunteer, depending on the needs and budget of each institution. Inclusion will happen when guided by knowledgeable people.
Advocacy: Every institution possesses the ability to impact policy – that’s the beauty and power of lay leadership. Almost every synagogue, JCC, day school and camp in addition to a board of directors has an education committee. Some even have inclusion committees. It is essential that those volunteer-driven bodies represent all aspects and concerns of the community. For example, it is incumbent upon all institutions to remember to regularly examine the language used — internally and externally, in print and online — mission statement, description of programs offered, etc. What is stated and what is omitted speaks volumes about our attitudes. Inclusion will happen only when all stakeholders make it a priority.
If anything is to be gained from the recent events in which a visually impaired teen was asked to leave his overnight camp, it is that all of us must use what abilities we have collectively to build a Jewish community of which we can all be proud. I don’t want to sit with my grandchildren and experience for the first time a Jewish community led by someone with special needs or who is not a typical learner. I don’t have the patience to wait that long. With your help, we won’t have to.
Dori Frumin Kirshner is the executive director of Matan: For Every Child. For Every Community. The Gift of Jewish Learning.