February is ninth annual Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). I hope that you consider #JDAIM17 the catalyst for real change in how we support people with disabilities and join the hundreds of communities worldwide that no longer believe that “inclusion” is something we do once a year. Rather, Inclusion is who we are and how we act to empower, encourage and support Jews with disabilities to enjoy to full spectrum of Jewish life as they determine.
One of the Jewish rites of spring is the community Seder for people who have disabilities. Many communities hold these events in the days prior to Passover while some prefer to hold seders during Chol Ha’Moed. I don’t recall a community seder for people with disabilities that is held during the first two days of Passover, but perhaps there are communities that do so.
When I was the community inclusion manager at Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis I used to attend the community Seder for people with disabilities. The Seder was led by a rabbi or community member who loved being with people with disabilities and their family members. We never used a Haggadah because the leader would bring it to life! The seders were lively, engaging affairs, with lots of music and singing of familiar traditional prayers and songs. I thought it was a great model for any seder because it truly engaged the attendees.
And the food! A wonderful traditional Passover meal was served. Each person had his or her own Seder plate. The chicken soup and knaidlach were tasty, and the main course of chicken and spring vegetables as always served piping hot. After dinner the hunt for the afikomen ensued, and those who found one of several that were placed placed around the big synagogue social hall were rewarded with gift cards to everyone’s favorite store, Target.
I would often sit at the registration desk to welcome the people with disabilities and their guests, including their family members or housemates from group homes. Some people came alone, having no one to share the Seder with but finding a community where they could, for one evening, celebrate being a Jew, settling in to a familiar ritual with other Jews. I loved seeing everyone decked out in their nicest spring outfits, smiling and full of the joy that Passover gives us. It reminded me of the Shabbat morning liturgy. “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkinotecha Yisrael.” How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. Bringing part of the community together for a communal spiritual experience was indeed lovely.
I attended the Seder for the last time in 2013. I was about to leave my position managing the community inclusion program. As I observed all the people and their loved ones whom I had gotten to know over the last 13 years, I began to think:
“What if the opportunities to experience the joy of community and the familiarity of long-ago learned rituals were open to them at any time, just like anyone else…Imagine if all of these people could participate in synagogue seders or at peoples’ homes. What if we didn’t have a community Seder at all for them? And what if they actually belonged to a congregation where they could go to services, study, participate and most important, feel that they belong?”
I continued as I surveyed the happy faces around me. “What if people could belong to a congregation or go to Shabbat services, Torah study or other programs just like anyone else?”
I paused for a moment. It occurred to me that this seder, as fun and well-done as it was, was simply a taste of Judaism. I knew that every single person loved the exposure to Judaism at the Seder. I saw it in their expressions and their enthusiasm. They connected, not because they have disabilities, but because they are Jews.
And that is why we have to change our thinking. People with disabilities want what you want. A Jewish place to call home, a place where they are regarded as contributors to the community, not as recipients of occasional communal events based solely because they have a disability diagnosis.
Change requires action. JDAIM is a month dedicated to structuring the action that moves our organizations from simply including people to creating a culture where people know they belong.
Shelly Christensen, MA literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities and her new book, From Longing to Belonging: Empowering Faith Communities to Include People with Disabilities, is due out in 2017. Shelly is co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).