During Yizkor on Yom Kippur, I remember my father, who always made us laugh and I also remember my best friend Carla Meyers, who used to say, “In humor there is truth.”
So when I recently came across this joke in the Joseph Telushkin book Jewish Humor, I recognized the sad truth buried within a joke that causes discomfort in me because it should be so far from reality.
The joke: A Jewish mother is walking down the street with her two young sons. A passerby asks her how old the boys are. “The doctor is three,” the mother answers. “And the lawyer is two.”
We can laugh at the joke, but I do believe that we are ready to move beyond the thinking behind it.
I would like to believe that we’ve dispelled this age-old myth about Jewish intellect and academic superiority. After all, look around you this Yom Kippur and see all the people in the sanctuary who have disabilities and their families attending services.
Not so? Then it’s time to embrace the vision that many synagogues and Jewish institutions are working toward.
I say kudos to all of those self-advocates, parents and family members, and Jewish lay leaders and professionals who have managed to dismantle old thinking that people with disabilities are “mitzvah” projects rather than fully valued members of the community. These people are modern day Jewish leaders guided by Torah which tells us that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. They believe that each of us has the responsibility to serve as God’s partner no matter what our individual and unique abilities may be.
Belonging to one’s Jewish community is as important to people with disabilities as it is to people without disabilities. Including people with disabilities must be woven into every aspect of congregational and Jewish life, in the sanctuary, the classroom and the boardroom.
Opening the doors is not enough. Nor is it just to assume that all people with a disability need and want the same thing. Imagine for a moment that all people with blue eyes had to sit in a special section in the sanctuary reserved for people with blue eyes. That makes as much sense as putting people who use wheelchairs in the back of the sanctuary, or creating special programs only for people with disabilities.
The point is we must embrace the spirit of inclusion by supporting Jews of all ages and any disability to live the Jewish life that is important to them rather than by what we think people want or should do.
We do things with people with disabilities, not for them.
Welcoming, supporting, valuing and including Jews with disabilities and those who love them is serious business. No Jew should ever be invisible to his or her community.
Did you hear the one about …
Shelly Christensen, MA literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Her award-winning work as Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities.at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis led her to co-found Jewish Disability Awareness Month with the Jewish Special Education International Consortium in 2009.
Shelly’s work as founder and Executive Director of Inclusion Innovations, where she provides training, organizational and community development, and strategic planning so Jewish organizations and communities around the world can become more welcoming and inclusive, is the standard in the field of sacred community inclusion. She is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. Shelly and her husband Rick are the parents of three children, one of whom has a disability.