Is Judaism a sufficiently inclusive religion? The KOH Library and Cultural Center’s new program, the Michael Boussina Inclusion Project, is still in its formative stages, but it has already proven that Judaism is far from an exclusive faith. What remains difficult is not finding those in the community with disabilities but finding ways to include such individuals in religious services and community events. In the Jewish community, inclusion is an ongoing goal that is especially difficult to achieve. According to one member of an inclusion study in Minneapolis, “There’s the attitude that all Jewish kids are gifted and talented; we don’t have disability in our community.” This attitude affects the success of inclusion projects, but another factor that hinders inclusion is expense. School and synagogue administrators, if they wish to equip their institutions for people with disabilities, will face inevitable costs to provide accommodations.
The Jewish community in Minneapolis published a community inclusion guide that proposed ideas for how each synagogue, school, or institution could make inclusion successful. The guide suggested first and foremost to reach out to people with disabilities and then encouraged institutions to provide tools to make everyone feel welcome and included. The guide suggested ways to accomplish this by providing practical accommodations that could be adapted to an individual’s specific needs, creating educational programs to teach sensitivity to those with differences, and understanding how a disability can be a barrier to participation. The Inclusion Program in Minneapolis serves as a blueprint for future programs, and the Michael Boussina Inclusion Project is a prime example. The new computer in the KOH Library and Cultural Center was specifically donated for those with special needs and has been equipped to accommodate them. In the near future, the students at Shalom School and other area schools will have the opportunity to learn about those with special needs by coming to the library and learning about people with disabilities through resources on the computer. The more people that can be exposed to the reality of those with disabilities, the more they will see them not as a category but as individual human beings.
The simplest way to begin reaching out to those with special needs is to read the Torah and follow its teachings. By studying the Torah, one can see that the sacred text of the Jewish faith is not exclusive in the least. There is the misconception that because Jews are G-d’s chosen people, they see themselves as set apart from the rest of the world. However, a human being need not be Jewish to reach a high spiritual level. Take Enoch, who "walked with God" and Noah, who had a very high relationship with G-d-- neither was Jewish. According to Judaism (Talmud - Sanhedrin 58b), any person can achieve a place in the World to Come by faithfully observing the basic laws of humanity.
The Torah’s teachings are universal and show sensitivity to the issues of inclusion and exclusion. When King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he specifically asked G-d to accept the prayer of non-Jews who came to the Temple (1-Kings 8:41-43). The prophet Isaiah referred to the Temple as a "house of prayer for all nations." Non-Jews were welcome to bring offerings to the Temple as well.
Much more proof exists to confirm that Judaism is not an exclusive religion. Many other religions teach that non-believers are condemned to eternal damnation. Even the calendar systems of Christianity and Islam reflect an exclusionary philosophy; both begin with the birth of each respective religion. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, begins with the creation of Adam, the first man. By beginning the calendar with the beginning of humankind and not Judaism, the faith teaches people the intrinsic value of every human. For this reason, Jews do not proselytize in search of converts. One can still ascend to heaven by his/her own merit, no conversion necessary. An important component of Judaism's non-exclusionary approach is that any person -- regardless of national or racial background -- can choose to accept the Torah and become part of the Jewish nation. Indeed, some of the greatest names in Jewish history - Ruth, the ancestor of King David, and Onkelos the Talmudic Sage -- were converts to Judaism.
We, the authors, can attest to the inclusionary attitude we have experienced from Sacramento’s Jewish community. We have not felt excluded in the least since the first time we came to Mosaic Law as potential converts in May 2012. Since that time, we have been overwhelmed by the lack of judgmentalness those at Mosaic Law have shown us. Mosaic Law and the KOH Library and Cultural Center have given us countless opportunities to broaden our knowledge as well as social skills. We suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism spectrum disorder that makes socializing anxiety provoking and makes us more susceptible to sensory overload. We have found that the range of programs at the library and synagogue have allowed us to participate without feeling overstimulated. If our experience is any example, we are confident that the Michael Boussina Inclusion Project will help dozens of other people with disabilities find a community that is welcoming, accommodating, and accepting.
Please join Rabbi Taff after Shabbat services on July 27th to further discuss inclusion and how the Jewish community can change people’s misconceptions that the religion is closed to outsiders. The discussion promises to be an illuminating one.
“From Invisibility to Visibility,” by Shelly Christensen, Journal of Jewish Communal Service, 2007
"The Chosen People," by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, www. torah.org.