Sometimes Inclusion Makes Me Nervous

On Yom Kippur morning, an amazing young woman came to our bimah to chant Torah.  She happens to be blind. And while I eagerly anticipated what I knew would be a stunning aliyah, I found myself really nervous.

Why would I be nervous?  This should have been a moment of immense pride that the inclusive practices we have embraced in our school could carry over into the congregation at large. And it was; yet I found myself hoping that everyone in the congregation would be blown away by this young woman’s abilities, not by what she accomplishes in spite of her blindness. Yes, we are an inclusive congregation, but does this mean that every member of our congregation is themselves fully open and welcoming to all?

Here was a significant opportunity for the congregation to understand inclusion more fully, yet I was nervous because I didn’t want anyone to think that this young woman is a “poster child” for our inclusive practices. She wasn’t invited to chant because she is blind, she was chosen because she is an outstanding chanter. I was nervous that the emotions evoked by her chanting would be disbelief, not awe. And I was nervous because I wanted every worshiper to know what I know; that this young woman is a gift to our congregation and to the Jewish people.

So I watched carefully. I watched people’s reactions when she was walked to the bimah and I saw people notice as she placed her Hebrew Braille on the open scroll. I observed people’s body language as they heard the voice of an angel.  I found myself sighing with relief as I heard low murmurs of positive assent and saw numerous expressions of joy. And I finally let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding when I noticed a grown man weep openly as she finished.

I think it’s possible that after services her receiving line was longer than the rabbi’s! When I finally found her, I joked that she had become a Yom Kippur rock star. She chuckled at that idea – and in her typical, unassuming way, shared her relief that she could now go back to studying for secular school!

Yes, we are an inclusive congregation. Not perfect, but aware and striving to improve. I am so very fortunate to be a part of it.

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Lisa Friedman

About Lisa Friedman

Lisa Friedman is the education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. Lisa also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. She blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block.

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