If Elijah had a disability would he be welcomed at your Seder? During Passover we traditionally have a cup of wine at our Seder table for Elijah and we open the door to let him in. Could he get into your home or the place in which you celebrate the Passover holiday? If Elijah used a wheelchair or had other ambulation challenges could he get in? Would you invite him in if he looked different or sounded unusual when he spoke? Could he participate in the rituals of Passover if he could not read the Haggadah? (For people who do not read or read well there is now an adapted Haggadah.)
Is Elijah seen as an afflicted guest or a harbinger of peace? We say, “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers and foremothers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and partake. Let all who are in need, come and celebrate Passover.” In opening our door to Elijah, are we also aware of opening our door to other members of our community who might be viewed as differen and perhaps wrongly viewed as afflicted? (The very term “affliction” today, when viewed by people with disabilities, is considered offensive).
How we answer these questions can have a significant impact on how people with disabilities, and their families, feel like valued members of their Jewish community. We know from both research and experience that it is both important to and important for people with disabilities to be valued by others and to be contributing members of their community, essentially the meaning of citizenship. It is important to people because they tell us it is. They know when they are marginalized, excluded and not valued. It is important for people with disabilities in part for their own safety and sense of security, and in part to be respected in the same ways as are others in their community. Safety and security comes when others, who are not paid to care for you, know you, think you are important and value your contributions, whatever those contributions may be.
When we read "Let all who are hungry come and eat," think of many kinds of hunger. So many people with disabilities and their families feel isolated and lonely. Too many. They are hungry for friendships, relationships and meaningful participation in the life of their Jewish community
Many of us have a family tradition of inviting “strays”, friends without family nearby, to our Seder table. Many have extended family to share the Passover Seder, to pass on traditions and practices. Someday maybe all people with disabilities will be part of another family’s Seder or have neighbors and members of the Jewish community at their Seder table. When that happens, the promise of Elijah may be fulfilled.
Steven Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at The University of Delaware and the faculty director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. He has worked for the last 35 years to help people with disabilities lead full lives in the community.