DCM remarks December 7 2019

December 7, 2019

The following remarks were presented as part of a lunch and learn at DC Minyan in Washington, D.C.


Shabbat shalom! Before I begin, I’d like to first thank the SC and everyone who has brought me to be with you all today. It is truly an honor and privilege. I wanted to spend a few minutes this afternoon speaking about my perceptions and experiences around inclusion in the Jewish community from a specifically religious, or perhaps more accurately put, ritual/halakhic perspective. There’s been a lot of work across the community around speaking about why accessibility is a core Jewish value—B’tzelem Elokim, kavod haBriot, etc. In my experience, more work remains to be done around thinking about maximal inclusion and accessibility in communities which are guided by halakhah. Every community is unique, and the culture of a community is unique, so it is extraordinarily important to situate any change or adaptation within the framework already present. Often, inclusion and access do require institutional culture change and that has to be done deliberatively and methodically, in my opinion and experience for the most far-reaching results.

One of the unique contributions I am able to bring to bear in the larger intraJewish conversation about inclusion and access is my ability to be in conversation with a wide variety of communities. Often, inclusion conversations tend to focus squarely on accommodations and resource acquisition, both of which are crucial areas of focus. Often, in communities which adhere to a stricter interpretation or practice of or around halakhah, we fall into the trap of assuming that a request made to make our community more inclusive is not possible to be done within a halakhic framework or, worse still, assume that people with disabilities are inherently uninterested in being part of more traditional communities. In disability rights and justice work, we talk often about self-determination being one of our highest values. Every individual should be empowered to exercise agency and control not only their own destiny and life path in the business, social and educational spheres, but also in the religious sphere. I am often asked, challenged even, to justify why I remain observant, part of traditional egalitarian, halakhic spaces, etc. Isn’t halakhic inherently, irredeemably ableist? How could you stand to be a part of such a problematic, ableist system? In my work, I have frequently encountered individuals both with and without disabilities who have pronounced halakhah to be devoid of meaning, backwards and utterly irrelevant. Truthfully, something that feels urgent for more traditional spaces to work on is communicating the larger, meta reasons why we practice as we do and why our communities are guided and constituted as they are. It is upon us to be able to articulate both to folks for whom halakhah is normative as well as folks for whom our community is their first encounter why we feel bound and what meaning it holds for us. Without that conversation, ritual decisions that are made, particularly when they intersect with disability needs, can come across as clueless at best and sending the unequivocal message that folks with disabilities are unwanted at worst.

It is also true that as with numerous other systems, halakhah has its fair share of ableist assumptions, chiefly because the rabbis who made halakhic rulings often failed to consider the perceptions and experiences of those who were unlike themselves. In so many ways, halakhah centers an abled, male, well-educated experience, and as rabbinic Jews, we are instructed to assume that that narrow experience can or even should suffice for all of us. Halakhah, then, is both meant for all of us and written for only some of us.

In addition to those underlying assumptions, religious communities frequently carry one of two associations. Either we are perceived as inherently warm, welcoming, a sanctuary from whatever troubles exist in a person’s life or we are spaces of violence, marginalization, exclusion and hurt. Those binaristic assumptions feed off of one another and often result in folks entering religious spaces carrying a great deal of historical baggage from prior spaces they have been in. We never know, as community leaders and participants what a person is carrying, and we are often faced with the formidable task of determining those aspects of what a person is presenting to us that are immediate, actionable, things we can address in the short and long term, and what lies underneath the surface. I believe anecdotally that it is a safe assumption that anyone with a disability has likely encountered a religious space that was unwelcoming or unfriendly. Many folks often don’t ask about accessibility because they fear they are the only one, will face rejection, or simply don’t know who to ask. Every community has both an internal sense of itself as well as an external sense of itself. Unfortunately, we often cannot easily shift external perceptions, even when those perceptions don’t comport with how we see ourselves. I can speak to this challenge personally and how frustrating it is. I have found one of the best ways to welcome someone in to a community, and all the more so if they have a disability, is to ensure that there are folks willing, ready and able to be a friendly presence, demonstrate through their demeanor and presence that they value the person and want them in the community, and actively seek to find ways for the person’s talents and potential to be used in service of the larger community. No one wants to be pigeon-holed.

To conclude, I wish to underscore that the task is large and the work long-term but there is so much we can do each and every day to build more inclusive communities. It is crucial for all of us to assess where we are and what our priorities are so that we can begin that work in earnest together.



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