By Elie Klein

There’s an old joke that every Jewish holiday can be summed up with a single statement: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”  The particulars behind the punchline are that we have survived a lot of hatred and many – but not all – of our holidays do include communal meals and celebrations that provide us with opportunities to rejoice, reflect and reconnect. By gathering around a dinner table, at a community center or in a place of prayer to relate the memories, miracles and meaning of each holiday, we revitalize our connections to our shared culture, customs, history and each other.

But after months of keeping us socially distanced from one another, the Coronavirus pandemic has derailed our longstanding tradition of togetherness, chipping away at the very foundation of Jewish communal life.

While Purim was marred by the initial signs of infection, Passover and Sukkot were depressingly insular, marking the very first time that so many extended families and large groups of friends celebrated separately.  Though great efforts were made to enhance High Holiday prayer services, even the most innovative formats only highlighted the lack of interpersonal connection, how much we truly long to sit side by side and engage in dialogue, prayer and song.

And now, Chanukah is under attack.

For generations, Chanukah has been the great unifier.  Like moths to a flame, Jews of all backgrounds are drawn to the holiday’s enlightened messages and radiant traditions – connecting, giving, spreading light. Night after night for more than a week, we come together to celebrate our shared values and beliefs, and the strength inherent in our numbers.

But Chanukah celebrations will be very different this year. No mass gatherings to publicize the miracles of the season. No singing and dancing hand in hand. No making crafts, playing dreidel or preparing heavily fried foods with good friends and perfect strangers. 

And no wonderfully inclusive activities.

As the pandemic erodes our Jewish communal structure, disability inclusion hangs in the balance. Though the numerous barriers to participation for our brothers and sisters with disabilities have been evident for months, especially during holidays, memories of Chanukahs past make our drastic step backwards clearer than ever.

True, we’ve harnessed technology to ensure that people of all abilities can log on to virtual community events. But deep down we know that nothing holds a candle to tangible opportunities for encountering disability, raising awareness and promoting acceptance.

If we are serious about securing our Jewish future and building truly inclusive communities, we must safeguard Chanukah at all costs. We cannot allow key opportunities for communal bonding to slip away during these less than ideal times. We must get creative to spread the light of inclusion.

In this vein, an inspired inclusion plan was set into motion at ADI (formerly ALEH Jerusalem and ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran), Israel’s most comprehensive provider of residential and rehabilitative care for individuals with severe disabilities. For years, hundreds of people from across the country and around the globe have made special plans to visit the ADI centers during the month of Kislev to shower the residents with gifts and attention, sing and dance to Chanukah songs, assist with the creation of seasonal crafts and participate in chanukiah lighting ceremonies aided by adaptive technology.  The residents were also taken on countless outings to enjoy nature hikes in the crisp autumn air, partake in festive holiday gatherings and soak up the season’s intrinsically inclusive vibe.

But with travel banned and extreme sterilization protocols in effect at the ADI centers to shield the immunocompromised residents from infection, the throngs of visitors and extensive excursions have been replaced with an international disability awareness and inclusion campaign. When it became clear that the masses wouldn’t be able to visit ADI to partake in inclusive experiences, it only made sense to bring opportunities for disability education and inclusion to them.

Since the beginning of November, children of all ages at schools, community centers and synagogues across North America and the UK have been learning about the care, rehabilitation and advancement of children with severe disabilities, and creating beautiful ‘Sensory Chanukah Cards’ to brighten the holiday for the ADI residents. Made with great love and deep understanding, these special cards, which include 3D elements that are fun for the residents to look at and touch, will be delivered by the boxful ahead of Chanukah to show the ADI residents how much they are loved and serve as a bridge between Jewish communities and a symbol of just how easy and beautiful inclusion can be. This project is proof positive that heightened awareness and real change are achievable, even during a crisis.

On Chanukah, the primary objective is pirsumei nisah, publicizing the miracles of the season by retelling the story and spreading our light outward.  For generations, we fulfilled this directive by organizing large public affairs and ensuring that a parade of Chanukah candles burned brightly along every residential street for all to see. But in the “Age of Corona,” when everyone is tethered to their homes, we have no choice but to settle for fulfilling our obligation with the occupants of our own households, to go through the motions and hope for the best in the months ahead.  Unfortunately, it feels like we have begun to do the same with our communal responsibilities and inclusive efforts. 

With the desire to connect dramatically overwhelmed by the frustration of being kept apart, we find ourselves numb, complacent and treading water.  If we don’t act, swiftly and with great creativity, we may be faced with irreparable damage to our Jewish communal fabric, a tear so deep that it cannot be mended. If we don’t take action to prioritize inclusion and meaningful connections in some form during these challenging times, the maintenance of our physical wellbeing will soon deal a lethal blow to the health of our Jewish communities.

And while Zoom and other tools could be used to properly promote inclusion and stimulate Jewish connection, they will only truly assist us in these efforts if we aren’t just phoning it in.

Elie Klein is the North American Director of Development for ADI (formerly ALEH Jerusalem and ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran), Israel’s most comprehensive provider of residential and rehabilitative care for individuals with severe disabilities and an international advocate for disability inclusion, equity and access.

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