Senator Tammy Duckworth tells the story of Lisa Carl, who, on May 28, 1988, went to her local theater to see a movie. The theater manager refused to sell her a ticket. It was not because of her race, or because of how she was dressed, or because she had been barred from the theater due to previous behavior. Lisa Carl was denied entrance to the theater because she had cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair. When an advocate called the theater on her behalf, the manager said, coldly, “I don’t want her in here, and I don’t have to let her in.”
The manager was right – he was not legally obligated to let Lisa Carl into the theater to watch a movie. The law was on the manager’s side – he was free to discriminate based on Lisa’s disability. Lisa later testified before Congress, “I was not crying on the outside, but I was crying on the inside. I just wanted to watch the movie like everyone else.” Two years later, Congress passed the Americans for Disability Act, which ended decades of legally sanctioned discrimination against people with disabilities.
This week in our Torah portion, we are introduced to the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah. The midrash tells us that their tent was open on all sides, symbolizing the hospitality that Abraham and Sarah extended to all. The tent open on all sides also represents the inclusiveness that was a part of Abraham and Sarah’s daily lives. The rabbis tell us that Abraham and Sarah reached out to others quite unlike themselves, and brought them under the wings of the Shekhinah, into the Presence of G-d. All who wanted to enter and to be included were welcome by Abraham and Sarah. This message of inclusivity is reinforced at Sinai, when all of the Jewish people – the Torah says “the men, the women, the children, the stranger, the wood-chopper to the water drawer – meaning even those of the most humble of status—all stood at Sinai, together, and accepted the covenant. As it says in the Book of Isaiah, “[G-d’s] house shall be a House of Prayer for ALL people.” Thus, from the very beginning of our tradition, inclusivity was part of the vision that Judaism aspired to.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to ask the question – are there those in our Congregation Beth Shalom community who do NOT feel included? What can we do as individuals and as a community to make people with disabilities feel welcome? My colleague Rabbi Michael Schwab of Northfield addressed this issue in his Yom Kippur sermon this year. He suggests, first, that we be careful when we are tempted to label someone. He tells the story of one woman’s experience with the labelling of her son:
“When my son, Jake, was born, I was . . . clueless about motherhood. I was even more clueless about Down syndrome. For two weeks all I could see was the diagnosis. I cried a lot and thought about all the things Jake would never be. Waiting at pediatrician’s office for his 2 week appointment, I felt ashamed and guilty, like his diagnosis was my fault, and I covered Jake with a blanket so no one could see him. A woman in front of me turned around and nosily peeked under the blanket. She said to me, “Is that a Down’s? My friend has one of those,” – as if my child were some breed of dog! I was horrified. But I felt powerless and I didn’t know what to say . . . Finally, when the doctor came into the exam room, the first thing he said to me was, “You have to remember, he is not a Down syndrome child, he is a CHILD, who has Down syndrome, amongst many other characteristics.” For the first time in his tiny life I saw my SON. His beautiful almond eyes, chubby little cheeks, and curly hair captured me like never before. And the tears of anger and helplessness became tears of pride and joy. Suddenly what mattered wasn’t that he had Down syndrome, what mattered was that he was Jake”.
The lesson is that we should avoid defining a person by their disability. A person is not a “dyslexic child” as if their diagnosis describes their total character. A child who struggles to control his or her impulses is much more that a “behavior disordered child” as if that is the sum of their personality. We should make a conscious effort to look beyond a person’s diagnosis, whether it be mental illness or addiction, and see the whole person, and not just the illness they struggle with.
One in five Jewish families has a member with a disability. Most synagogue rabbis and leaders feel that they do a pretty good job when it comes to addressing members with disabilities. But, according to Joanne Newmark, a leader in a JUF sponsored educational program to address inclusion issues in Chicagoland synagogues, many people who have disabilities themselves or who have children with disabilities do not feel welcome in their synagogues. Wouldn’t it be great if our congregation had a sub-committee to explore and address this issue in a systematic way? For example, Congregation Shaare Tefilah in Boston has a standing Inclusion Committee that sent out a letter to each family in their congregation along with High Holiday tickets. It said, in part:
“Reducing stigma, educating ourselves and creating an accepting and supportive environment for those with disabilities and their families is a mission we ask you to embrace with us. We each probably have no more than 3 degrees of separation from someone with an impairing disability. This is a part of the vista to which we at Shaarei Tefillah raise our eyes as we begin this New Year.”
I want to challenge our congregation this evening to develop our own Inclusion Committee. If you are here and are interested in being a part of this committee, please let me know. I you are reading this sermon on-line, and want to be part of this effort, call or email me. Let this be the year when we move closer to the vision of the Psalms – Kol Haneshama Tehalel Yah – May every soul praise G-d.