Embracing All: Parshat Tazria
As a parent of a young child, I can easily get swept up in the competitive comparing and contrasting of kid’s- what percentile for height and weight? what developmental stage are you at? Is she walking? Is she talking? Is she multiplying and performing long division yet? I know I am naïve, but I hope that these milestone moments do not become breeding ground for unnecessary rivalry, with failure never being an option. For while we all are created in image of God, a seemingly perfect image, we all have had issues as we travel through life. Some we can overcome, others we just hope we can keep in check. I hope that whatever challenges come our daughter’s way, she will not battle them alone.
As I think of her early milestones, I think of my own childhood. I was a late talker. A very late talker. I was just about four when the talking finally began. At 3, my parents took me to a neurologist, who diagnosed me with oro-motor dyspraxia, a delay of the muscles around the mouth. He also said that I probably missed stages of sound formation due to a number of ear infections as a baby. Subsequently, I spent most of my elementary school years working with a speech therapist, finally conquering my “r” sounds when I could pronounce my therapist’s name, Mrs. Sotiropolis. This delay was coupled with a later diagnosed auditory processing issue, where the ideas were moving so fast in my head that they got jumbled coming out. This disconnect between my receptive and expressive language skills was aided through specialists who strategized ways to narrow the gap. I was already the introvert, the late one to talking. It took a while to lose the self-consciousness not knowing what words would get jumbled, not knowing how I’d be perceived by others.
5,000 years ago, Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Moses, the reluctant leader of the Jewish people, suffered from a speech impediment as well. God saw through his disability to appreciate his ability to lead and his passion and loyalty to God and community. Today, Would Moses be given a leadership role in our communities? Would he be granted acceptance in the first place?
In thinking of our own community, what is our gateway to full membership and engagement? Is it your wallet? Is it your ability to read Hebrew and follow a service? Is it your capacity to sit respectively for a 3 hour service? Or is it merely the desire to actively engage in a prayer community, in educational and social opportunities within a group framework?
Our text from this week’s torah portion focuses on those let in and those let out of community. If we take the text quite literally, it paints a darker picture of our ancestors and how they perceived the other. Tazria, states the following in Leviticus 13:45-46:
And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.
The Rabbis link slander (lashon hara) with tzaraat, this peculiar skin infection. Earlier in our storyline, God afflicts Miriam with tzaraat as punishment for challenging Moses’ authority. The Rabbis try to interpret this difficult section under the rubric of lashon hara because it’s hard to grapple with notion that the ancient Israelites had a fear of the unknown, a fear of the other. Even worse, how could they shamefully embarrass someone, making them scream out, “I’m unclean” to the masses? How could the Israelites masses make those inflicted take their journey alone? While Talmud teaches that the community is called upon to offer support and prayer during this period of illness, the text unabashedly refers to the person as “hatzarua”, roughly translating to “the one who has leprosy.” Not someone afflicted with a disease, but rather someone who is defined ONLY by the disease they suffer from.
We have all heard the labeling of individuals with disabilities, the hurtful remarks transmitted by pity, fear, ignorance and disrespect. This commentary continues to poison our community spaces that are meant for all. Steps are being made throughout the Jewish community, however, to ensure meaningful experiences for all.
This comes in two stages. Stage 1 is our Jewish obligation to literally not allow a stumbling block before those who are blind, establishing avenues that lead toward an inclusive physical space for all those in need. Stage 2 is our moral obligation as decent human beings: changing the attitude and creating gateways to community through social acceptance and appreciation.
Step 1: Access to Worship, Breaking down physical barriers to inclusion
In our building, we’ve installed ramps and walkways. We’ve provided large print siddurim and assisted hearing systems. We’re lowering counters and installing handicapped entrances to bathrooms. We are creating elevator access for our schools. Within our schools, we’ve started to help children with special needs in with a modified curriculum while trying to be as inclusive as possible. At our local JFCS we’ve hired our first inclusion specialist to work with the different arms of the Jacksonville Jewish community.
On the national level, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium partners with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Council for the Jewish Disabled, Union for Reform Judaism United Jewish Communities, and the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies to provide a unified resources as well as a unified approach to inclusion.
The Ruderman Foundation’s Global Innovators in Inclusion Competition is looking to support fully inclusive programs that ensure everyone can participate together, without stigma or imposed limitations.
These accomplishments, in our school, shul and community, should be CELEBRATED. When we complete a project such as our elevator construction, this is a holy moment ensuring no physical barriers to any child receiving an education here. This is indeed sacred work. But these milestones are only Step 1.
Step 2: Remove barriers of attitude and communication to enable all people to participate fully in worship, learning and social activities. Without this, it doesn’t matter many special programs or enhancements we make.
- Initiate outreach to people with disabilities to identify and serve their needs.
- Advocate and inform our community of the needs as people move through the life cycle of the synagogue.
- Changing the rhetoric. Sensitivity to language used. Eliminating certain words from our vocabulary.
We all experience being left out or put down. We all have been left out of the inner circle at one point or another. How do we respond? What is our action point so others feel included? The following are action items we may incorporate into our community.
Action Items (taken from a myriad of online resources):
- Continuing our work in the schools: Children may engage in hands-on, multi-sensory Jewish education that builds on social skills enhancement and enables them to feel proud of their Jewish identity. This model can flow between schools and shul. We can ALL benefit from a multi-sensory prayer experience.
- Create an area on the application form for High Holiday Tickets, membership and other congregational programs for people with disabilities to indicate what assistance they require to participate.
- Create a Special Needs Fund to help with costs of improved access to the building, prayer books for those with visual disabilities, a better sound system and other accommodations.
- Write a statement of welcome and inclusion that is added to all congregational membership materials. An example:
i. They are friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates, volunteers, and teammates. They are people with developmental disabilities. The Jacksonville Jewish Center encourages everyone to get to know someone with a developmental disability and you’ll find out he or she has a lot to offer to our community. Recognize ability, not the disability and picture their potential.
- Include the universal symbols of accessibility in all publicity and marketing for our congregation (ie: the icons for wheelchair access, assistive listening devices, etc.)
- Create a program or open forum that will allow congregants to discuss any attitudinal barriers to inclusion that may exist in your congregation. Explore why those attitudes exist and develop a list of strategies to address and eliminate them from our congregational community.
- Push our chesed committee to go a step further, asking members to assist family members of the congregants with special needs with grocery shopping and other errands on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Also ask congregants to provide rides to and from the synagogue for programs and Shabbat services for congregants with special needs.
As the tagline importantly states, “People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people.” One out of every five individuals has a disability, yet we can and should focus on the ways in which our communities may be enriched through their participation.
Serving as a Rosh Edah, Rosh Tefillah and Music staff at Camp Ramah in New England, I saw the direct impact that inclusion brings not only to those who have developmental disabilities, but to the campers and staff that directly engaged in meaningful moments that include all. It is not a burden of our time or resources. Involving everyone as valued citizens of the circle encapsulates the potential depth that community can offer.
In altering the attitudinal landscape, inclusion becomes the game-changer that can define our community. Inclusion is a gift. The tzaraat, this troubling Tazria narrative, is turned on its head. Our fears and inhibitions of the unknown are left outside the circle, the cold and insensitive acts are left to be proclaimed, “Unclean Unclean.”
We are much more than a Not-for profit organization. As my former co-counselor and charitable startup founder Adam Braun pens it, we are a “for purpose” organization. Our purpose should be obvious. Although 84 percent of people with a disability report that religious faith is important to them, less than half attend a religious service at least once a month. There is a spiritual need yet to be realized.
The Arc, a community based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, highlighted today, March 29 on their calendar in a grassroots initiative to raise awareness about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. What is the act? Simply make plans to go out somewhere in public today. That’s all. Just plan a day out and about enjoying the things you like to do. And, in the process help raise awareness and generate some conversation during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.
Just to socialize, that’s all. It seems fairly straightforward, but what this teaches is that the communal needs are not being met, that the stigmas and preconceived notions still exist.
Our purpose is to meet those needs; to include those who have the spirit and desire to be part of a greater community; to exclude the preconceived bigotry. May we support and learn from one another. May we all grow to learn that it is more than just being aware. It is more than merely being sensitive and accepting of others. It is about embracing all in our community, and in doing so, embracing ourselves.