Living the Jewish value of inclusion

During the recent Passover holiday, Jews around the world gathered at Seder tables and were called upon to welcome the stranger and the person in need. We were reminded of our responsibility to ensure that anyone interested in learning about the Passover story can do so. Our use of the Haggadah ties each of us to our history and tradition, one of the many sacred texts that bind us together; and Seder rituals highlight that in our diverse and interconnected world, religious communities play a critical role in fostering a sense of belonging and spiritual growth. 

But true inclusion is opening the door before the person knocks, and finding the right communication tools so that there are no barriers to accessing Judaism’s beauty and complexity. True inclusion requires intentional efforts to accommodate the needs of all members and ensure that everyone who seeks to learn more about Jewish life, culture, ritual and community can do so easily and without having to ask. This is particularly true for the “People of the Book,” as individuals with visual impairments or print disabilities often face significant challenges accessing the books and texts that are so critical to engaging in Jewish life. 

While legal requirements may drive accessibility decisions, faith communities should go beyond compliance and recognize that inclusion is a moral imperative. Moreover, when we create spaces that accommodate diverse needs, we enrich our entire community. 

As we count the Omer and prepare to celebrate the giving of the Torah at Shavuot, we are reminded that inclusion aligns with our core values of justice, compassion and love for all and enables all of us to fully engage as Jews. Leviticus specifically notes that we must not “put a stumbling block before the blind”; this verse is usually applied metaphorically, but we can and should be mindful of its literal meaning as well. 

How do we do this? 

1.) Education and awareness: Jewish communities must actively educate themselves about the needs of people living with disabilities. There are many resources addressing blindness and low vision, such as Matan, an organization that trains and supports Jewish community leaders and educators on how to provide purposeful and enriching opportunities for people with disabilities and their families.

    2.) Providing alternative formats: Readily make materials in braille, large print, and audio formats available to ensure equal access to religious texts and resources. Organizations like mine, JBI, provide liturgical (and secular) materials tailored for different denominations and available in multiple languages in braille, audio and large-print format for anyone who needs them.  

      3.) Assistive technology: Invest in assistive technology, such as Kure screen readers, magnifiers and accessible seating arrangements. These are becoming much less expensive. The Vision Services Alliance is a good resource to help identify a local organization that can assist you. 

      4.) Welcoming attitudes: We should focus on getting to know individuals based on their abilities and interests rather than their disabilities. Think about how a synagogue, JCC, religious school, or camp can make sure its language and its program offerings are inclusive and supportive of full engagement.

          5.) Advocacy networks: Connect with agencies, organizations, and other individuals who understand the challenges faced by people who are visually impaired.

            Two boys with vision impairment learning the Hebrew alphabet with JBI’s large-print materials. Courtesy/JBI

            Thankfully, there are already a number of organizations taking proactive steps to improve inclusivity, and JBI has recently launched our own Accessibility Consulting Services (ACS) program, supported by a grant from the New York Community Trust, to help a wide variety of organizations seeking help to increase their accessibility. 

            In the New York City-area, for instance, the NYPD Shomrim Society, an organization of Jewish members of the New York City Police Department, delivered 150 large print traditional Haggadahs along with other Passover treats this year, ensuring that all could fully participate in the important family Seder ritual without difficulty. Last year, JCC Brooklyn offered a first-of-it’s-kind summer camp for blind and visually impaired youth. The Melton Center for Jewish Studies will be offering braille versions of their class materials. Notably, have made this decision in anticipation of potential requests rather than waiting for a student to ask for accessible materials. Finally, the Museum at Eldridge Street offers a braille and large print version of their self-guided museum tour, and The Jewish Museum is creating accessible art exhibit guides that describe paintings in vivid detail for patrons who are deaf or visually impaired.  

            Inclusion in religious and other communal settings for people who are blind or have low vision is not just about physical accessibility. It is about fostering a sense of belonging, understanding and love. By actively advocating for and embracing everyone, Jewish communities can truly live our values of welcoming the stranger and providing full access to our stories and sacred texts. Let us strive to create spaces where everyone feels valued and included.

            Livia Thompson is the executive director of JBI, established in 1931 as the Jewish Braille Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps people of all ages and backgrounds who are blind, visually impaired or print disabled gain access to Jewish life, learning and culture.