My Torah of Inclusion
By Rabbi Ari Moffic
I remember the first time I heard the word inclusion used in an institutional setting. It was referring to including children with special needs in what would be a neuro-diverse classroom. I heard the term because I was begging for the last spot for my then four year old. This was a unique preschool because “inclusion students” worked with one on one aides to help them integrate successfully into the classroom. The parents in this community wanted a neuro-diverse classroom because they believed it was better for all children. The school put accommodations and plans in place to best ensure that my child could be an active participant in classroom lessons and have the chance for social play so important for young children.
At that time I was a few years into my rabbinate and was working to help make the Jewish world more welcoming to interfaith families. There were and are hurdles and barriers standing in the way of interfaith families joining congregations. These included hearing clergy preach sermons blaming interfaith families for increasing levels of assimilation and unaffiliation. There are clergy who can’t and won’t officiate at life cycle events for interfaith families which makes feeling welcome complicated for some. There are ritual policies that can make it hard for the parent who isn’t Jewish to meaningfully participate in their Jewish family’s congregational life. There is whispering in the pews about someone’s child who is marrying someone not Jewish and visible disappointment. Derogatory terms for someone not Jewish are heard. For years, interfaith weddings were not listed in the simcha or celebration section of some synagogue newsletters. There may be few opportunities to learn the Hebrew or the service and people can feel lost, embarrassed, alone and isolated. No wonder interfaith families have often needed extra hand-holding, extra-convincing, extra outreach because they were and sometimes still are skeptical they will be wanted and accepted by the leadership and congregants.
Now that I have spent over a decade doing this work, I look not only to the field of inclusion in our wider society for best practices to help congregations and Jewish organizations create diverse communities (not just including interfaith families, but including people with different situations that marginalize them and can make it harder for them to participate in organized Jewish life). I am also looking to Jewish wisdom for inspiration in this holy pursuit.
One Hebrew root (3 letters that form a core idea) in particular can shed light into the idea of inclusion in Jewish settings. It is the root ayin, reysh, vet. It is found in the three special words, arav, erev and eruv. The root means mixed or blended. Erev means evening and is about the blending or blurring of day into night. An eruv is an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on Shabbat. It is about the blending or blurring of private and public spaces. Arav means responsibility or collateral. There is a Talmudic teaching, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Sh’vuot 39a). It is usually translated as, “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” As Dr. Reuven Firestone writes, “The word arev (the singular form of arevim) is the key term in the phrase, and it means, literally, to serve as security for a loan. A person can be an arev for another person, meaning that they take on the obligation to pay the debt of another.” We see in Genesis 43:9 that Judah said to his father, “Send the boy in my care … I myself will be collateral for him, you may hold me responsible.” He uses this Hebrew word, arav. Arav then is about the blending or blurring of where one person starts and another stops. We are stand ins for each other.
What does this teach us about inclusion? Inclusion is not about inviting people in to what we already have. When we meet new people, we ourselves change. There is a blurring or blending as we learn from and reshape one another. Martin Buber said real dialogue means you are willing to change. Inclusion is building a community around the people who are there and who we want to be there.
As the late Jonathan Woocher wrote, “Jewishness has not disappeared from the self-consciousness and self-definition of most American Jews. But, it exists as one identity strand among many, woven together with others in complex fabrics in which the colors of the diverse strands occasionally stand out but often blend together to form new hues.” (Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century)
An eruv is a wire that is set and fixed. But a spiritual eruv can be a metaphor or a model for what Woocher talks about. The spiritual eruv that I imagine is permeable and fluid. Instead of the wires being boundary lines, they are connection lines. Instead of closing the space in, it’s expanding the spaces out.
When we speak about inclusion, we are speaking about creating boundaries automatically of who is in and who is out. There have to be limits to our inclusion. Outreach also has to involve boundaries. Where are those boundaries? This forms an interesting dichotomy. When we offer Jewish programs, we often say, “All are welcome.” Is this true? Can we affirm who we are as an organization and have this still be true? If “all” come in, then will we be sensitive that there will be people there of different faiths and no faith. There will be people there of different abilities.
As with a Venn diagram, there will be some overlap between what the programmers want and what individuals who come in to be included need and want and there will be some disconnect. The root for eruv, erev and arav teach us that there should also be a blurring and blending of who includes who and an ability to see how we are interconnected, related and responsible for each other.
In a spiritual eruv, the lines are layered and bundled and tangled and strong and frayed and knotted and still being thrown and it’s up to all of us to keep building and setting it up. That’s Jewish inclusion.
Rabbi Ari Moffic is the founder of CoHere. To learn more, visit: coherechicago.com.