The Collective Consequence When Inclusion is Perceived as Optional

by Naomi Brunnlehrman

There have been emails, blogs and emotions about a situation that occurred last week at Camp Ramah in Canada. It seems to be that all of us are missing the bigger picture. The unfortunate report of a talented camp director who was juggling limited staff and a host of other challenges while at the same time a family and specifically their teenage son who needed accommodations is not an isolated story. This situation which was brought to our collective attention by the heartfelt blog (here and here) of a dad who is also a rabbi highlights the consequences to all of us when the wider Jewish community continues to perceive access and inclusion as optional and not an integral part of what it means to be a sacred Jewish community.

As Herzl said long ago, “If you will it, it is no dream.” There are many challenges associated with providing access and inclusion. Financial considerations, staffing and a slew of other issues tempt us to perceive access as something optional. We don’t perceive access as a win-win for everyone. Instead we perceive inclusion as expensive, complicated and ultimately a luxury. If we can do it, kudos to us, but if we can’t, no problem. You can’t do everything, right? The irony is that when it comes to Shabbat, Kashrut, ethics, and social action, we find a way to make it work because like Herzl’s message, we will it and so we make it work. We form committees, we use collaborative thinking and brainstorming and we come up with ways to make our committed programs a success because we believe in them and, more importantly, we are determined to make them successful. We don’t take no as our final answer. We probe, we re-visit our decisions and we keep on tweaking because we believe in them. Ultimately once we believe in something we propel ourselves with determination and we find a solution. But because of our perception that access is optional, we are not committed to making it work. On the contrary, it becomes the norm in the Jewish community to say no first and then re-consider if enough advocates make noise.

Torah tries hard to send us a different message. We are commanded to be kind to the stranger because we were once strangers in a foreign land. We leave the 4 corners of our field for those who may need sustenance and we take care of the widowed and the orphaned. It also says in Leviticus in the very Torah reading that teaches us about what it means to be holy that we should not insult the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind. It doesn’t say if it’s expensive, challenging or requires creative solutions, that these commandments are optional and we are exempt.

We spend a lot of money as a Jewish community on outreach, marketing, and branding. We complain that youth feel disenfranchised and that we don’t train professionals sufficiently to have successors ready to jump-in when change occurs in our administrative ladder. But we forget that the best marketing, education, leadership training, and branding comes about when we are good to one another. Creating sacred space for each of us is critical because when we do so we are building caring communities.

When I read the various blogs and emails about what happened at Camp Ramah in Canada I was struck by several points. In spite of the generous apology from the camp director, the teenage boy who had been a camper there for years, decided not to stay for the second half of the summer. There was no blog or email disseminated that I could find about how this example became a living Torah text for the wider Jewish community about teaching us the win-win approach when we make access part of our day-to-day business as a Jewish community. More importantly, we missed the opportunity to model for the next generation that when we make space for one another, we are truly living a life of kedushah embracing all of our needs as a reflection of being made in the image of God.

Only when we decide that access is a win-win for all, will we be ready to sit down at the same table and collectively share our ideas because we believe access is mandatory and not optional. Then we will fulfill the vision of our Torah that we are truly a holy community and a model for all.

Naomi Brunnlehrman is a Trilingual Interpreter and is the co-founder and part-time executive director of the Jewish Deaf (and Hard-of-Hearing) Resource Center. She has been an advocate in the Jewish community for over 30 years.