“A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy One, Blessed be G-d, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union, is a 6,500-member global organization dedicated to the Inclusion of all Jews with disabilities in every aspect of Jewish life. With numerous offices and chapters across the U.S., Canada, and Israel, Yachad/NJCD offers diverse services including, but not limited to: summer camps; Israel trips; social programming for all ages; social skills development; support services, case management, counseling for individuals, siblings, and families; shabbatonim; educational opportunities and special needs yeshivas; and vocational services.
The purpose of the Disability Inclusion Resource Guide for Rabbis, brought to you by Yachad/NJCD, as part of the cross-Movement Heneinu initiative for a more Inclusive Jewish world, of which Yachad is co-founder and a member organization, is to support Orthodox rabbis and lay leadership in their efforts to make their synagogues more inviting to Jews of varying abilities and disabilities via a plethora of no-cost, small, measurable, and easy-to-implement initiatives.
The Torah states that each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:27) and describes the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah welcoming strangers to their home. Yet there are Jews with physical, developmental, emotional, intellectual, mental health, and other challenges that do not have the opportunities to participate in the richness of Jewish life because multiple barriers still exist, largely on the attitudinal level.
It is only when attitudinal barriers are directly addressed and acknowledged by rabbis and other synagogue leadership that the synagogue community truly begins to move toward Inclusion. As the community follows the rabbi’s example of active welcoming of persons and families impacted by disabilities, many Jews with diverse abilities and challenges will at last find warmth, welcome, and a sense of belonging to their Jewish community.
Historically, people with disabilities have been perceived in light of visible impairments such as physical, communication, and sensory challenges. People can have disabilities that are not visible, including but not limited to autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, executive functioning disorders, and mood and behavioral challenges. Regardless of whether a disability is apparent, one of Judaism’s core tenets is that because each person is unique and that we are all created in the image of G-d, every community is responsible to seek out persons of various abilities and disabilities, and ensure their Inclusion in Jewish communal life. We should meet their needs so they may participate in personally and spiritually meaningful opportunities as full members of the Jewish community, who can contribute to a stronger and more vibrant community.
We know that more can and must be done to build a more inclusive Jewish community. A remarkably high number of Jews have to, or will have to, overcome some barrier to be included in Jewish life. We must ensure that our programming, worship, social events, and facilities are accessible to all people with apparent and not-apparent disabilities; our attitude and demeanor is welcoming; and our language is appropriate . Then and only then will all Jews have the opportunity to enjoy their G-d-given place in the Jewish world and enjoy the fruits of meaningful participation in the richness of Judaism.