A place at the table

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:

He would say: Do not disparage anyone, and do not shun any thing. For you have no man who does not have his hour, and you have no thing that does not have its place.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:3

Over the past several years, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington adopted an outstanding philosophy and set of practices indicating what it means to be an inclusive community. Among other items, it means that we respect and include individuals with disabilities, and we do everything we can to make sure that our celebrations, events, and learning are thoughtfully designed to reach as many people as possible. This is absolutely a Jewish value, and it is one that Gesher JDS proudly accepts and enacts.

Are there limits to this kind of philosophy and practice? Philosophically, the quote above helps us understand the ideal — no limits — each person has a place at the table, and we don’t disparage or shun them. Realistically, of course, the ideal plays out in different ways in different settings. Can a Jewish Day School legitimately offer services to every Jewish child who is interested? Of course not. Philosophically, we’d love to! If money were no object, and we could hire as many support services personnel as we liked, and if we could put the facilities in place, and if, and if, and if…

We do a good job of serving the widest range of needs and abilities as we can, and one of the pedagogical reasons this is good is that learning is about content, but it is also about cognitive and social-emotional skills. The “real world” is filled with all sorts of people. Do we want our children to consider themselves separate, different, or G-d forbid, better than people who are different from them? I hope your answer is a resounding “no.” When we practice inclusion in school we raise our children with greater empathy — they begin to be able to imagine what it is like in another person’s shoes, and that is perhaps the most important skill they can learn.

Once a child begins to truly empathize, it empowers them in several ways. First, they begin to think differently about their own challenges, and to put difficulties in a larger, more complex perspective. Second, they begin to consider ways in which they can come outside of their own concerns to actually address the needs of others around them. Finally, they begin to understand the significant ways in which their own choices and actions can have powerful ripples (either positive or negative) in their classes and communities. All of that, from the simple commitment to include others.

This Shabbat, I encourage you talk to your children about what it feels like when you encounter someone with disabilities. What are the emotions? What should we do with them?

Shabbat Shalom,