Is It Really a New Year?

Our community has begun making strides toward being fully inclusive, but much work remains to be done.

By Jay Ruderman

The Jewish New Year has just begun and Jews worldwide are faced with a simple question: Will you be a better person in the coming year? The 10 Days of Penitence, which culminate with the fast of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, are days of reflection and introspection on our deeds over the past year, and looking forward to the new year, we pray it will be filled with happiness, hope, good health and peace on earth.

During these solemn days, the Jewish custom is to ask forgiveness from people we have wronged and pledge to do better in our interpersonal relationships going forward. This should include asking forgiveness of those we have wronged without being aware of it – those who feel disenfranchised in our community, those who can’t access the tremendous opportunities the Jewish community affords its members, those we have prevented from joining and participating.

I am talking of people with disabilities.

The Jewish community has always been at the forefront of the social justice and human rights movements. We have made every effort to ensure that society as a whole is welcoming to everyone and all people have equal access. Yet our own community has failed to live up to its own lofty standards and lags behind the rest of society when it comes to including the largest minority among us.

Twenty percent of the population has some form of disability. Our community has begun making strides toward being fully inclusive, but much work remains to be done. If our synagogues are not physically accessible, if our schools and camps are not inclusive, if our places of business do not employ people with disabilities, we will simply not survive. Every Jew can contribute and preventing them from doing so affects us all.

Jewish survival is a much discussed and oft-debated topic in our community.

Recent studies have shown that more and more young Jews are becoming unaffiliated and are less likely to become members of our synagogues, attend Jewish schools or camps or be involved in communal activities. If our very survival is at stake, then we must provide access to every Jew who wants to participate and leave no one on the outside looking in.

Young people view our communal organizations as archaic and outdated.

Many of them attended schools which are inclusive, a large swath of them have relatives or friends who have a disability. Inclusion is considered par for the course, not extraordinary. They are committed to social justice and human rights. It’s in their DNA as Jews. Yet if Jewish organizations are not inclusive, they will look elsewhere and devote their time and energies to other causes. Our entire community needs to be just as committed to taking the next step and making full inclusion a reality.

In the High Holiday prayers we say, “May we all blend into one community to do Thy will with a whole heart.”

We can never be whole unless we are one community, with everyone having an equal seat around the table.

May each of us work in the New Year to help create a fair and flourishing Jewish community.

Happy New Year.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.