I was a rabbinical student at the time, but my wife and I did not typically go around the house talking about seeing God everywhere. We knew that it wasn’t Yael’s typical echolalia. Yael (who is now 12 years old) was embracing a connection when she was just three for which many of us yearn—seeing God’s Presence in our own reflections. There is a teaching that suggests children have the ability to see angels. Their perspectives are simple and still unclouded by the challenges adults must face. I have always been enamored at Yael’s unclouded vision.
Yael has a diagnosis of High Functioning Autism. While my daughter is not defined by her diagnosis, she embraces it as something that makes her unique. Her Autism, while challenging, is a significant part of who she is and how she sees the world. Her worldview reflects Maimonides’ teaching that when we see someone who is different, we should respond with “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes people different”(Mishneh Torah, Hilchot B’rachot 10:12).
No person is created in vain. If we truly accept and internalize God’s Presence in our lives, then we have no choice but to treat every person with dignity and grace. If we don’t treat our students, our children or our neighbors with the dignity that is inherent in them, it is ultimately a reflection of how we feel about God and God’s Creation.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has written and taught extensively about inclusion in our Jewish communities. In addition to being an exceptional rabbi and teacher, he is the father of Jacob, a young man with Autism. Rabbi Artson teaches that there is a “simple radical truth” that changes everything we do in our Jewish community. If we actually believe that everyone is created in God’s image, then there are no exceptions to this rule! If we are to take that seriously, he says, then we “need to make a radical re-ordering of communal initiatives.” (See his “Including People with Special Needs” June 17, 2009 podcast on The Podcast Page for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University or click <a href="Rabbi Brad Artson, \"Including People With Special Needs\"“>here.)
In a presentation to Jewish education students, Rabbi Artson spoke of how he has approached leaders in Jewish agencies, synagogues and schools in our Jewish community to be more inclusive of our families with special needs. He paraphrased their responses: “We would love to include your child, but we just don’t have the resources…” Many parents of children with special needs have heard that said to them. Rabbi Artson, however, illuminated the perspective of the parent. What we actually hear is, “Your son is not worth our effort.”
As a father and as a rabbi, I think we can do better. We have segments of our community that feel very vulnerable. When these families are told that there is no place for their children—in the sanctuary (because they might be disruptive) or in the school (for a lack of resources), they often choose to leave with feelings of resentment and abandonment.
Jewish educators, clergy and communal leaders have a tremendous opportunity to let these individuals and families know that they are valued. The Reform Movement has always been at the forefront of inclusion for vulnerable populations. It is time to have our budgets reflect our values and begin to authentically welcome this vulnerable population that often sits in silence on the sidelines, assuming that there is no place for them.
Maimonides taught: “Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah—regardless of whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 10) We can serve these souls. It will take more effort and more resources, but the presence of these children and teaches by example that every soul matters.
This article was originally published in Torah at the Center, a Jewish education journal published by the Union for Reform Judaism. The entire issue is devoted to issues of Jewish Education and Inclusion (Vol. 14, No. 2).
This article, among the other articles, will also appear on the Reform Movement’s blog during the month of February 2011 as a part of Jewish Disability Awareness Month 2011.
Also check out their “Spotlight On: Accessibility and Reform Jewish Life.”