Sometimes a leader is a person with a title and a desk at an organization. Other times they do something truly remarkable. They set an example.
Yesterday I watched Steven Rakitt, CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, do something truly inspiring at the Inclusion Training at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD.
I was blown away as this important leader of the community where I live stood up to say “Heneini, here I am.” He turned a “you” into a “we.” He spoke hard and uplifting truths. Here are excerpts from his remarks.
“In 1957, when I was two years old (you do the math), my mother didn’t have the option of coming to a workshop like this. She could have used it. You see, I was born with normal hearing and then, for some odd reason, I lost my hearing at the age of two. My Mom called me one day out in the yard and I didn’t answer. Now, she wasn’t totally shocked because my brother, who is 7 years older than me, had the same crazy thing happen to him (we blame our grandparents – mostly because they’re not around to defend themselves).
In any event, I developed a severe hearing loss and began a lifetime of wearing hearing aids, paying really close attention, becoming an expert lip reader (I can tell what’s really going on in our board meetings) and overcompensating in so many areas I’ve lost count.
My Mom, who is now 96 years old, spent hours and hours teaching me to speak. I’m lucky and I know it. I have benefitted from technology and a loving and dedicated mother.
But a funny thing happened on the way to 2012. I never considered myself disabled. I never used that word to describe who I am or what I could do. I was mainstreamed throughout school and have had a long career as a Jewish communal professional.
In November, 2012, I was at a national conference following the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore. I heard speaker after speaker talking about disabilities, the visible and the invisible. I heard about the critical need for our Jewish community to learn more, teach more and mostly, do more about inclusion. There are some organizations and agencies which do a better job than others; there are some communities that are further ahead than others.
It was at that conference that I realized something. If I identified myself as having a disability, then I had a responsibility to help change the way the Jewish community addresses others with disabilities. If I was willing to change language I used to describe myself, then I had a responsibility to change communal language. If I was willing to take action with regard to this issue, then I had a responsibility to help our community take action as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham and the story of greeting strangers outside his tent. The powerful imagery of Abraham rushing to meet three strangers before they even got to his tent, offering them relaxation, refreshment and food, is an extraordinary lesson for each of us and for our community.
And one more thing. Abraham did not ask who the strangers were, nor where they were going.
The combination of humility, service, kindness, welcome and non-judgmental behavior made Abraham a role model for us and our institutions.
· Imagine a world where all Jewish children are welcomed into our schools and offered a first-class education according to their abilities.
· Imagine a world where all Jews are welcomed into our synagogues and offered a chance to be spiritually uplifted regardless of their abilities.
· Imagine a world where all Jewish institutions never said, “no,” and only said, “of course.”
Today, we will learn how to create such a world right here in our community. Our trainers will help us understand how language, planning, access and interaction all come together to create an inclusive environment, an inclusive community.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we shall be.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the co-director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust. She is dyslexic and could not read and write well until she was 12.