Moving the World from Awareness to Inclusion

From David Neufeld, Director of Special Needs Programs and Services

A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical.  But the Holy One, blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

As I sat, enjoying the INCLUDE Tu B’Shevat Seder last month, I was struck by one particular aspect of the ceremony. In a traditional Tu B’Shevat seder, we eat three different types of fruit—fruits with one large inedible pit or seed (e.g., dates, olives, avocados), fruits with many small edible seeds (e.g., carobs, figs, blueberries), and nuts or fruits with inedible shells or peels (e.g., almonds, bananas). We drink fourdifferent cups of grape juice: one that is all red, one that is mostly red with a little white, one that is mostly white with a little red, and one that is all white.

What struck me about this tradition is its celebration of difference. Each type of fruit or cup of grape juice is equally delicious, and each is equally important to the integrity of the seder. Just as this is true in a Tu B’Shevat seder, it is true in the larger Jewish community. We are blessed to have many different kinds of people in the Bay Area—people with different appearances, different traditions, different strengths, different challenges, and different learning styles. Judaism tells us that each of these people is equally important.  Each member of our community matters. A common thread among us - our desire to learn and to connect with one another.

While the Jewish community has made strides towards successful inclusion of many different types of people, there is still work to be done. Despite our best intentions, too many families with children with special needs have felt unwelcome—they have been looked at strangely when their child has a meltdown during Shabbat services, told that our educational programs are not able to support the needs of their children, or had to leave a community event because the environment was too overwhelming for their child’s sensory system.

However, with increased awareness, knowledge and resources, more and more Jewish institutions across the Bay Area are investing in their ability to welcome everyone through their doors. They do this in many ways: providing professional development opportunities for their teachers, inclusive holiday programming for their congregations, developing support groups, chavurot and more.  

February is National Jewish Disability Awareness Month. We at Jewish LearningWorks, along with many of our community collaborators* are celebrating difference through many different programs. Between ourJewish Disability Awareness Month events, our Navigating Difference, Embracing Inclusion workshop series (a groundbreaking collaboration starting on February 23rd), our Special Needs Family Camp weekend and more, we are working every day to improve and extend Jewish learning to those who have had to live without it for too long. We are challenging ourselves to shift our attitudes, to recognize that having a disability is part of the human condition, and to see that humanity in each person we meet. Jewish Disability Awareness Month is recognized in February; the need to belong goes on month after month, day after day.Thank you for being a part of this holy work.

*our community collaborators include: The SF-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, Friendship Circle, Rosh Pina, The Contemporary Jewish Museum, Celebrations!, Be’chol Lashon, InterfaithFamily, Keshet, our INCLUDE North and South Peninsula partners, and many others.