Strangers in a Familiar Land
As Jews, we are intimately familiar with feeling unwelcome and excluded. We have been strangers in Egypt, in Babylon, in Europe, and even in America, but it is this shared experience that compels us to open our doors to those who sit outside our community.
In Exodus 23:9 we read, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Being a grammar dork, I looked at the Hebrew and found something interesting in the different “yous” we find in this verse. The first “you” is singular. You shall not oppress a stranger. It is your obligation to make an person-to-person connection to ensure that this ger, this stranger, is a part of the community and is not forced to remain outside the walls of our synagogue. The “you” who knows in their hearts and souls what it means to be left out is plural; the “y’all” form of the verb. We not only have an individual mandate to make inclusion a reality, but also a communal obligation stemming from our shared history.
In general, we as a community are well seasoned at looking outside the walls of our synagogues. We look for opportunities to bring in new people and to help those in need; however, we must also look inside those walls to ensure that we maintain those values for those already inside. Who do we make strangers through inaccessible buildings and materials? Who is forced to the outside circles because of non-inclusive programming? We need to recognize those in our communities whom we render strangers by not addressing their needs and desires to be part of all aspects of synagogue life, not just the parts we choose to make accessible.
As Rabbi Landsberg wrote on the blog last week, February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. We should take this month as a jumping off point for a larger, comprehensive effort to make our synagogues and communities open and accessible to all people, especially those with disabilities. A number of different organizations have resource materials for Jewish Disability Awareness Month including the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and the Federation of Greater Washington, United Jewish Communities, Jewish Family and Children Services of Minneapolis, and the UJA Federation of New York.
Additionally, the URJ Jewish Family Concerns website has a fantastic collection of ideas, programs, advocacy, and community action tools available to help ensure that all people, with a disability or not, are able to fully be a part of our Jewish community.