On Creating Communities of Welcome

This drash was originally delivered at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 13, 2016.

Shabbat shalom!!! Thank you so much for having me in your community this Shabbat. It is such an honor and a privilege to be with you. This morning, I am going to be speaking about one of my favorite verses in the Torah, which has always resonated very deeply with me and is emblematic, I believe, of the value that we all hold that inclusion of all in our communities is a must and that each and every human being, regardless of what society tells us to the contrary, is created in the image of God.

Before going into a seemingly endless and incredibly complex description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell amongst them. This verse can be understood in a multitude of ways. On the one hand, it’s a paradox. If God is everywhere, why does God need a sanctuary to dwell in? And if the children of Israel are asked to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell amongst them, what, exactly are they being asked to do? And furthermore, why on earth does this sanctuary have to be so complicated and so ornate? Wouldn’t we want something simple, easily comprehensible and relatable for all? It seems, on the surface at least, like the barrier to entry – to being involved in the sacred work of construction, despite the fact that gifts are asked from all of the Israelites – is quite high. I see this verse as intensely contradictory, which is why I believe it speaks so beautifully to the messiness that is the work of building sacred inclusive communities in which we can bring our full selves.

What does it mean for us in our day to build God a sanctuary in which God can dwell? Though the answer for me is multifaceted and ever-changing, one teaching that is rooted in Chasidism which I find to be both very inspiring and profoundly relevant is this notion that Judaism is a tradition that emphasizes taking the material world in which we all find ourselves and bringing spirituality into that world, lifting up the mundane and making it sacred. It is my belief that this is what is meant by God’s directive to all of us. And the work of transforming our communities in this way is incredibly hard and incredibly messy, but oh so worth it!

Lofty teachings can only get us so far, however. How can we apply this idea in a practical and sustainable way, and what do communities look like when the work of inclusion and integration of Jews with disabilities into all facets of life is realized? As Perkei Avot, the Chapters of the Fathers, a tractate in the Mishnah teaches us, though we may not complete the work, we are not free to desist from it. Though so many of us yearn for progress to come speedily and swiftly, progress, change and transformation come gradually and, in my experience, some of the greatest rewards come through the building blocks of relationships built up over time and after sustained effort and drive.

Though I cannot speak directly to what has gone on in your community around issues of access and inclusion for folks with disabilities, in my experience, through my time as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in many other venues, when the topic of including Jews with disabilities and their families and friends is broached, the angle taken is a practical and programmatic one. How do we make our synagogue buildings and other communal spaces accessible for those who cannot use stairs? What about those who are deaf or hard of hearing—do we have sign language interpretation available or know where to get it? And for folks who are blind and visually impaired, do we have materials in Braille, audio and large print available? How about those in our communities who are living with mental health conditions? Are our communities wholly committed to the critical work of de-stigmatization, have we worked to create synagogue communities that welcome them in with open arms and do not further shame or alienate them? And I am acutely aware that these practical access questions only cover a small subsection of the larger disability community—there are so many unique and varied needs and so many areas in which the resources just aren’t there or the questions haven’t been asked. And I am deeply aware that my own limited perspective means that just as I find myself wholly immersed in the work of inclusion of folks with disabilities into Jewish life from my particular vantage point, I, too, have so much learning and growing to do.

Asking ourselves hard questions about the physical and attitudinal access of our communities is an important first step and ought not be minimized. Nevertheless, it is only the first step. It is much harder, I believe, to commit oneself to the work of inclusion—of Jews with disabilities or any other marginalized group–if we think of them as abstract and not concrete. By abstract I mean people that we see ourselves as in a transactional relationship with, a model that is too often used when we think of community service, for instance, in which one party is the giver and the other the receiver. In such a scenario, often the individual with a disability is in the perpetual role of receiver and presumed to be incapable of reciprocity. The real work begins in earnest, I wholeheartedly believe, when we begin reaching out and engaging in real, mutual, genuine, respectful relationship. When we think of someone as always in the role of the other, the other whom it is our moral, religious or social duty to help, we keep those folks at arm’s length. We don’t allow ourselves to get out of our comfort zones—and getting out of one’s comfort zone, as this introvert well knows, is a challenge for many of us. We might find ourselves suddenly having to grapple with ugly biases or misconceptions that we’d been holding and aren’t proud of. Fundamental and foundational ideas about how the world works might be upended. We might begin to seriously wrestle with what it means to have access or opportunity when another doesn’t. These are all general examples which point to a larger issue, which is that as desperately needed as physical access and attitudinal adjustment on the part of our clergy, congregational and other professionals and lay community members is, what is equally a crucial ingredient is real work at bringing folks in and extending a warm and genuine hand of friendship.

Too often, what I hear from individuals with disabilities who are trying to access Jewish community is that those around them felt profoundly discomfited by their presence. Folks who have sustained lived experience of instinctively knowing when others are uncomfortable around them for whatever reason, folks for whom disability—perhaps amongst other things as well—has presented a barrier to social inclusion as much as spiritual inclusion, are often incredibly reluctant to approach a new synagogue for fear of rejection, as I know from my own life. I am in an incredibly privileged position. I am able to access Jewish spaces and resources and have an amplified voice on disability issues often owing to my being a rabbinical student, and it is because of this that I feel it my personal and sacred responsibility to do all I can to get more of our communities on board with how important it is to include all of us. I, too, know how hurtful it can be when you try to enter a Jewish space and are met with profound coldness. And those memories, particularly when they happen in the context of religious communities, communities in which we’re told we will be loved for who we are and instead are met with the opposite, are lasting ones.

Choosing to present yourself to a new community is a tremendous act of bravery, courage and – dare I say – faith when for your entire life you may have gotten the message in a multitude of ways that you don’t belong, you’re not wanted here. Often, folks assume a default position of not being wanted and not belonging until proven otherwise, which is both a profoundly heartbreaking and immensely understandable position in my view. It is because of this that saying that a community is welcoming isn’t enough—that declaration must be coupled with tangible and sustained action.

As my views on how to practically do the work of inclusion have evolved, I have come to the firmly held belief that relationship is absolutely key. When an individual or family has a connection with people in the synagogue—and not merely because those folks help facilitate access—but because they have been able to connect around a multitude of shared interests and concerns, when genuine, reciprocal relationships begin to form, that’s when the work of inclusion really gets going. All of the accommodations in the world mean little if the individual is alienated from community life. All of the Braille siddurim [prayerbooks] and chumashim [Bibles] in the world mean little if every Shabbat a blind congregant comes to shul [synagogue] and is completely ignored at Kiddish [lunch]. All of the supports provided mean little if the autistic child in the religious school is mocked or teased by classmates. In other words, the individuals in our communities with disabilities are yearning to be as integrally a part of the communal fabric as everyone else.

There is an oft-repeated saying in some segments of the disability community that access isn’t an add-on or a nice thing to do—it is the right thing to do. Access, defined broadly as I am trying to do here—is not merely providing the physical or programmatic accommodations needed. It is as much about feeling like every time you are in a space that the totality of your personhood is loved, accepted and respected, and that you are seen for who you truly are—a unique, irreplaceable individual created in the image of God.

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham—we are instructed by God to build a sanctuary so God can dwell amongst us (Ex. 25:8). I noted earlier that having such fixed and complex instructions could be seen as posing a tremendous barrier to participation by the entire community. Making all feel welcome in our communities involves a lot of imagination, willingness to think outside of the box, to make mistakes and to grow from them. Indeed, it takes tremendous courage. God doesn’t leave room for error in God’s instructions to us, and still, the larger message of this pivotal commandment I believe has so much richness and spiritual depth and much to teach us in our own day. God can dwell in those sanctuaries where every person is valued and where we live out the teaching found in Genesis 1:27 that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. That, I believe, is God’s directive to us in our parsha [Torah portion] this week. May we all continue that holy work. Thank you all so much. Shabbat shalom!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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One thought on “On Creating Communities of Welcome

  1. Dear Lauren,

    Thank you for such a beautiful theological statement in an inclusive interfaith context for full humanity of all people which speaks so very passionately to my heart. I am impressed with this truth that you mention from your tradition how “God doesn’t leave room for error in God’s instructions to us” concerning the “building of a sanctuary so God can dwell among us”. I see how in this you have modeled the working together of the whole community for inclusion of everyone, and if I am intuiting well, that we have no room for error in the building and inclusion of community, even when others are uncomfortable. There is something in the building together that will allow for God to dwell. Hopefully, in our work in our interfaith contexts, in our marginalized communities, we faithfully, creatively and with everyone through authentic and consistent relationships will be able to remove the barriers internally and externally in the ways they are present. Thank you so very much Lauren for your great work and insight.

    Deep peace,
    Madonna Arsenault

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