Friday, February 26, 2010

I really hate public speaking

This month is Chodesh Naim. Naim is the Hebrew word for pleasant, or nice, so it's a little play on words, because Naim also stands for North American Inclusion Month. (Chodesh just means month.)

I was asked to speak at my shul (synagogue) this Friday night. What with the whole shabbat thing, we won't have a live Internet feed, so here's the next best thing: a slightly edited copy of my speech.


The Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor. Tomorrow, we'll read the commandment to “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt.” But remembering is just part of the obligation. The other part is “timcheh et zecher Amaalek” – we must obliterate any memory of Amalek.

The double commandment here comes to teach us something about human nature that applies just as much to inclusion as it does to Amalek. There are two parts to this mitzvah: the feeling, and the action. The once a year remembering, and the commandment to act on our obligation in our day to day lives.

It's easy to show up at a Friendship Circle event and feel like you're doing something good. It feels really good to help out at a yad b'yad event or to attend a program about inclusion.… And those things are all great, and they make a real difference in the lives of many. But that's not really inclusion.

Inclusion is when your child invites my developmentally disabled 6-year-old over to play. Inclusion is… not averting your eyes when you meet a person in a wheelchair. Inclusion is… not speaking more loudly to someone who is blind, or making the effort to sign with someone who is deaf so that she can be part of the conversation. An online friend of mine defined inclusion as "folks with disabilities associating freely with 'normy' peers."

Inclusion is action.

Cities like New York and Chicago have lots of resources for Jewish families with special needs. Kids there can get a Jewish education that also meets their special needs. A frum mother in Chicago told me that her 12-year-old developmentally disabled son has real friends, typical kids who are enrolled in the Jewish day school where his program is housed. These kids include her son in their plans, come over to hang out, and invite him to their homes. Everybody loves my son, but he has never been invited to a playdate.

My husband told me not to say that, because he hates the idea that people will feel sorry for us. So let me be clear: inclusion is not pity. If you've spent any time with my son, you know that pity is the last thing our family needs. Understanding? Yes. A little help sometimes? We won't turn you away. But pity? No. It doesn't help. Action helps.

Here in our smaller, more intimate community makes inclusion easier, but also harder. Easier, because everyone knows D., including people who don't know me. And truly, everyone who meets him loves him, (although no one loves D. as much as his dad). Harder, because we don't have the resources to create expansive inclusion programs. Harder, because that means we have to open our hearts wider to welcome those with disabilities who would otherwise be left on the sidelines.

I believe in us. I believe in our shul. I believe in each of us, that within each of us is the power to make inclusion a priority for our shul, our community, and for klal yisrael (all of Israel). And so I challenge you to deliver. To take action. To work at inclusion, because it is work, every day. Yes, every day, to make a conscious effort to reach out to those who we all too often overlook. You'll quickly discover that inclusion doesn't only benefit people with disabilities -- it benefits you the giver, the receiver, and it builds a better world, one small action at a time.


Shosh said...

Beautiful. What shul do you go to? Im coming to your neck of the woods in the fall......

Janis said...

Great job!

Teej said...

Beautiful. I hope you got the feedback you deserved after sharing something so honest.

Ellen said...

Hello! This was wonderful.

I was being interviewed by someone today and I spent 10 minutes explaining the pity thing. I can't stand it because it means that people see my son as an "other"—and that means they treat him differently when, really, he's just a little boy who likes little-kid things.

So good to connect with you!

ella said...

Beautiful and powerful. I hope you opened some eyes and some hearts.

moplans said...

great job wg! you are a powerhouse.