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Ramping Up Together

02/04/2021 05:41:48 PM


February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, and our congregation is hosting a range of activities to participate. This Saturday night at 6:15 PM, our study will focus on Jewish text surrounding abilities and inclusion, and at 7:00 PM, Virtual and Drive-In Special Friends Havdalah will bring together different segments of our community. On February 16, we will be hosting a special panel discussion with members of the disability advocacy community.  A very useful text to drive our conversation about ability is found in this week’s Torah Portion, Yitro.

After one of the most remarkable experiences in the Torah, the giving of the Ten Commandments, our portion concludes with a commandment that is relatively obscure but has profound implications for how we create a truly inclusive community. “Do not ascend my altar by steps, so that your nakedness not be exposed.” We take for granted that ramps are a sign of sensitivity to disabilities. US construction codes require elevators or ramps so that those with limited mobility can access every part of a facility.  

A common approach to disability awareness is “accommodation,” making sure that there is some alternate path for those with different abilities to participate, but acknowledging that that may not be the same path that others take. A more powerful approach is “inclusion,” making sure that all can participate without anyone feeling like they are second class citizens.

The Torah understands this difference. Not everyone needed a ramp to climb the altar - the priests had breeches that shielded their dignity, and stairs would have been fine. But because some needed that extra dignity, God commanded that the same path to ascent be provided to all, offering inclusion rather than accommodation.

Our congregation must wrestle with that ramp question ourselves. Six years ago, when we were renovating our facility, we made sure that we were handicap-accessible. Every part of the building, including the bimah, can be reached via a ramp. We were very accommodating, but not inclusive. Someone who can’t climb stairs can’t come in through the main entrance, but rather has to go around. When we emerge from the current situation, we will need to do a lot of thinking about how we adapt our facility to “the new normal,” and I hope that we can move towards being truly inclusive, rather than merely accommodating.

In fact, we will need to wrestle with questions of accommodation and inclusion even sooner, going beyond the area of abilities. As we move towards the summer, there will be some who will be ready to participate in person safely, while others will not be able to due to their personal health or vaccination status. It will require great care to ensure that all segments of our community feel that they are truly included, no matter who or where they may be.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784