There is story that appears in the tractate of Ta’anit in the Talmud. It is a story that reflects our sages’ philosophy about the importance of inclusive education and meeting the needs of all students. One day the Talmudic sage, Rav, came to a town that had been experiencing a terrible drought. Rav immediately declared that the residents of the town begin a communal fast, however, this communal effort proved ineffective as no rain fell.
Then, after some time had elapsed, one day during the morning prayer service, a certain man ascended the bima and began to pray. When he came to the words, “Who makes the wind blow and the rain to fall,” the wind immediately started blowing and the rain began falling. Rav was astounded. Who was this person and how did he warrant such divine favor that he could cause the heavens to produce rain?
Rav asked him, “What are your good deeds that you are able to merit such influence with the Creator?”
The man answered, “I am a teacher of children and I teach those who can afford the tuition and those who cannot. I also have a fishpond. And for those children who are distracted, anxious, or unable to learn, I send them to look at the fishpond until such time that they feel soothed and are able to return.”
What a powerful story that displays the remarkable insights from the sages of the Talmud into the nature and essence of pedagogy, diversity, privilege, individuality, inclusivity and the inherent worth of every child. February is known as Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance &Inclusion Month. We celebrate differences in accordance with our Jewish values, honoring the gifts and strengths that each and every one of us possess.
As a Jewish community that embraces shared values, it is incumbent upon us to provide educational and other opportunities that address the needs of every child and adult, regardless of one’s physical or mental differences. Every human being possesses a divine spark that requires a commitment to individualized nurturing, understanding, and compassion if he or she is to grow into a person who is able to achieve his or her potential. When we uphold the primacy of every individual in our schools and in our communities, we in essence change the world one person at a time.
In fact, there is a blessing one recites upon seeing another human being who might be different than us; be it skin color, race, or any physical disability. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who makes people different.” At first, this blessing might seem strange to us. Why should we single out someone who is disabled or looks different for special attention?
For Jews, the reciting of a blessing contextualizes the manner in which we are to understand the world. We recite this blessing when seeing an individual who is different from us in order to appreciate all the differences among people. The Mishnah in the tractate of Sanhedrin brings an analogy that compares God to one who mints coins. “While a person stamps many coins from a single die, and they are all alike, the King of kings has stamped every person with the die of Adam, yet not one of them is like any other.” Every human being is unique and just because people with disabilities or skin color might be different from us, they are by no means inferior.
Ben Azzai taught in the “Ethics of the Fathers,” “Do not disdain any person; do not underestimate the importance of anything – for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” Although we dedicate the month of February to a greater awareness of people who are different than us – our sacred texts provide us with an imperative to recognize the uniqueness of every individual, regardless of mental ability and or physical limitations throughout the year. We are given the challenge as a community to ensure that those among us who are different are never neglected, never sidelined, never underrated, and never underappreciated as human beings capable of giving back to our community in their own individualized ways.
We often hear the word inclusiveness when addressing how our communal and educational institutions should treat people with disabilities. As a head of school and veteran educator, I personally dislike the term inclusiveness as it implies that we have the option to be exclusive as well. I would like to suggest a different word – “belonging.”
When you belong, you are an official member of the group, you fit in, regardless of any other limitations or disabilities. There exists no option to even consider exclusion. When one belongs, one is seen, valued and loved, without exception. By creating a deep sense of belonging within our communal institutions, we demonstrate that we have prioritized all of our community members as important and valued individuals. Or as one prominent educator recently expressed about the term, belonging, “This seemingly small act demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to see the other person and value their presence.”
But seeing is not enough. Motivations and sentiments alone are insufficient. Actions are required as well. Whereas Jewish communities throughout North America have come a long way in providing access to disabled individuals in the areas of education, employment, housing and other opportunities, there is still much more work that needs to be done and considerably more investment of dollars in order to create the resources necessary to meet the needs of all those who belong to our community.
This will only occur, however, when our attitudes toward the other who is different from the majority of us significantly shifts in the direction of equity and fairness. It’s not just a question of providing access to opportunities, it’s also a matter of the manner in which we provide these opportunities and services to others with disabilities. Do we do so with dignity and respect? The famous Israeli-American violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who contracted polio as a child requires leg braces and crutches to walk and plays the violin while seated at concerts. He wrote the following once in an article in The New York Times, “A lot of people think access means the ability to get into a building, no matter where or how you can get into it, whether you get into it through a back alley, or through an elevator that usually carries garbage or food. But shouldn’t it mean that you can get into a building through the front door with everybody else?”
Perhaps the Mishnaic analogy of the coins requires a different perspective. Instead of concentrating on our differences as individuals, we need to acquire a greater understanding of how we are all alike, all sharing the same basic needs, dreams and hopes for our present as well as for our future. Or in the sagely words of his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, “Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or nonbelieving, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.”
May this February, also known as Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month, be the harbinger of a new era that actualizes this vision.
Jay Leberman is the head of school at the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood.