D’var Torah: The Jewish Value of Inclusion – Let’s Talk About Why

I was recently asked “Why are there always so many people with disabilities in Jewish spaces?” and it took me aback. Immediately I was running through a list in my mind of all the Jewish spaces that played major roles in my life and was trying to remember if I interacted with people of all abilities. Synagogue, check. USY, check. Camp, check. JCC, check. And this list continues. Why is it that in a world where people with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from so many settings, I can think of specific instances of inclusion in every Jewish space I have been a part of? Fortunately, the answer wasn’t hard to find. The most central teachings of Judaism again and again highlight the importance of inclusion.

Examples of inclusion can be found throughout Jewish texts. In Nivi’im it is written “ כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכׇל־הָעַמִּֽים” – “For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  With no caveats, no stipulations, Hashem has commanded that in Hashem’s houses, something all Jewish spaces strive for, it is a house for all. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Azzai teaches “אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם” – “do not despise any man, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man that has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.” Each individual has their strengths – their hour – and we are to never doubt that those strengths will have their time to shine. 

As Jews, we have an obligation to open spaces so that each person can find their place. The Talmud teaches “…כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה” – “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” A motif throughout Jewish teachings is the concept that Israel is one. It can be seen when Am Yisrael waits for Miriam as they traveled through the desert and when Ruth remained with Naomi. These are just a few of the many examples that reveal the importance Judaism places on the value of inclusion. The central belief that everyone has a place in Judaism comes from every corner of Jewish teachings. 

At Ramah we emphasize the importance of living our Jewish values. It is meaningful to have the conversation with our chanichim (campers) that everyone should be welcomed, but to truly teach this value we must give our chanichim opportunities to live it. Having someone in our tzrif (bunk) or kvutzah (group) who uses a mobility aid, sitting next to someone during tefillah who holds a fidget or waiting an extra minute while a friend forms an answer on a communication device creates the environment in which our chanichim are immersed in a diverse space. When inclusion exists, chanichim are not passive participants in experiencing this Jewish value, but actively living it every day. At camp we lay the foundation for Jewish values as a part of everyday life with the knowledge that our chanichim will live these values in all parts of their lives as future Jewish adults and leaders. Shabbat Shalom.