Each year, Oceanside Jewish Center (OJC) on Long Island hosts a special Inclusion Shabbat to focus upon issues and challenges affecting adults and children with disabilities in the synagogue and Jewish community as a whole. The weekend is named for and honors, Harriet Seifman (wife of the co-author), who worked with children with special needs her entire career, both as a teacher and as an administrator.
She took it upon herself to find a way to include children with severe intellectual and other Developmental Disabilities in the religious school at OJC, by forming a special class and teaching it herself on Sunday mornings. In the spirit of the weekend, Inclusion Shabbat does not completely end after Havdallah, and an Inclusion committee continues work year- round to create increased access to servicesprograms and activities within OJC, and to highlight the challenges, struggles and achievements of people with disabilities, especially focusing upon the impact disability has upon their Judaism.
OJC will mark Inclusion Shabbat this upcoming weekend (May 3-4) by studying some biblical texts prepared by Elijah’s Journey, an organization tied into suicide awareness and depression in the Jewish community. Some might think that depression and suicide are unusual topics for an “Inclusion Shabbat,” we beg to differ.
There are more than 1 million domestic suicide attempts each year according to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, with an estimated 13,000,000 individuals contemplating suicide. Not only do reported suicides outnumber annual motor vehicle deaths, but they also outnumber homicides by a ratio of 2:1 according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How many individuals in our midst have had their depression exacerbated by isolation and stigma? Anecdotal evidence suggests the answer is many…too many! In just a few weeks, we’ll read the portion of Behaalotcha where Moses (in Exodus 11) is so overwhelmed that he asks G-d to take his life.
G-d’s response is to tell Moses that he should surround himself with group of 70 elders who can help ease his burden. There are least two important lessons from this story. First, we can often be helpful just by being present. Even when we don’t believe we have the power to single-handedly brighten a darkened road, we can still join the person on the road and walk by their side. Secondly, we can see that Moses (like many other respected heroes of the Bible) was not without his own emotionally challenging moments. Emotional struggles shouldn’t be viewed as a stigma…they should be viewed as normal. And not just a new normal, but, in fact, a very, very OLD normal.
Perhaps our communities could expand Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) initiatives to include visiting people who are in need of emotional support. Further, we should encourage our community members to communicate to our Rabbis and Chesed Committees when they have that need.” We many never have a world free of disappointment and pain, but together we can increase the empathy and support while decreasing the stigma for those who find themselves in a sea of emotional darkness. Inclusion can turn that darkness to light and that light can illuminate us all.
Sam Seifman is the chair of the Inclusion Committee at OJC, named after his late wife. He is a retired special educator and currently is an Adjunct Professor at Queens College teaching graduate and undergraduate programs in Special Education. Efrem Epstein is the founder of Elijah’s Journey, an organization focused on suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community