For the past eight years, we’ve observed Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) each February, the goal of which is to raise awareness and champion the rights of every Jew to be included and participate in all aspects of Jewish life.
The concept appears simple, after all, in Judaism — and other religions — we believe that humans were created in God’s image. Who are we to judge the capabilities of another person? Aren’t we all challenged in one way or another?
But the execution of inclusion is complex, as disabilities are nuanced and not limited to a visible impairment such as a wheelchair, a walking stick, or hearing aid. Other disabilities, and there are many, are not visible to the naked eye, and include those who learn differently, suffer from mental illness, or who must cope with neurological disorders such as anxiety.
JDAIM reminds us to be mindful of our actions and our words. Inclusion begins with heightening our sensitivity to others and being thoughtful in our interactions with all people. The website disabilityisnatural.com has an excellent list of preferred terminology. For example, saying “people with disabilities” is preferred over “the disabled”; someone is “a little person,” not a midget. Such language may strike some as excessive political correctness, but that’s for those who live with these conditions to decide.
JDAIM also promotes inclusion in our synagogues. When we gather for communal prayers we must be cognizant that there are some who can’t control vocal outbursts and we shouldn’t be so quick to “shush” them. As a relevant aside, we don’t need to stare at the sensory overloaded child having a tantrum, either. Our places of worship need to be a sanctuary for all.
The simplest form of accommodation requires an adjustment of our mindset, while other investments demand a more significant devotion of time and money. We applaud the many congregations who embrace JDAIM and incorporate its lessons into their actions every day of the year. Some have made simple fixes such as purchasing large-print prayer books or adding a second, lower mezuzah to the doorposts so all can reach the case containing the words of the Shema.
Others have apportioned their budgets to provide enhancements to sound systems, or retrofitted the sanctuary with ramps to enable someone with limited mobility to ascend the bima for an honor.
Institutions in our area are guided by the resources of Greater MetroWest ABLE, a network of leaders and professionals who advocate for and support individuals and families with disabilities. Our community is the fortunate beneficiary of this nationally recognized organization that promotes inclusion and our Jewish community is strengthened because of their meaningful efforts.
This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, happens to align with the message of JDAIM — that we should value the gifts present in all people. As the nation of Israel is being chased by Pharaoh and his army, the terrified people question why they were forced to flee Egypt just to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s men or drown in the Red Sea. But under God’s watchful eye they are led to safety through the water by Moses, a man with a stutter.