Being a Community of Inclusion

February 8, 2019 in Rabbi Greg Harris

I have learned disabilities are sometimes obvious and other times hidden.  Crutches and wheelchairs are external indicators of physical differences.  As a community we have been diligent to design spaces to be accessible through wider doorways, a ramp in the sanctuary, door assist mechanisms and other intentional features for our physical spaces. We have allowed greater access to our communal and sacred spaces.

Many people though are encumbered by less obvious conditions – autism, mental illness, addiction and other circumstances which present quiet barriers to accessing the Beth El community.  These differences might be more subtle but no less real to people being present, heard and valued.

As February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I want to briefly explore the difference between access and inclusion.  These concepts have real differences but are frequently lost.

Beth El is an accessible community because we have many ways to physically access our spaces.  People can arrive by bus or car, we have ramped sidewalks so strollers and walkers can easily traverse the building and grounds, even our carpet in the main hallway, lovingly named the Rudolph Gallery, was selected to make sure the carpet design would not trouble those with visual depth perception issues or other sight problems.  These are all ways, and there are many more, we have assured physical access.

From the circles below, you can see inclusion is something different though.  Access is getting into the building; inclusion is being rooted in the community.


Inclusion is simultaneously a more amorphous concept and often easier to accomplish.  Access might require financial investment in the physical space; inclusion requires people only to take a genuine interest and care for each other – to say hello, to notice when they are not present, to be mindful of how we can lift each other up.

Inclusion is seeing beyond someone’s physical or developmental challenges and help them realize the ways they can help build and strengthen our collective community.  We each have a stake in the community therefore we each can build it in our own ways.  Inclusion is not a favor to someone else.  Inclusion is a value for our community.

In Genesis 1:27, it teaches that all people were created בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים In the image of God.  This does not mean that God or the angels had brown hair like I do or necessarily had two arms and legs.  Not everyone has those things yet we are all בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים. The answer, for me, is not our physical form being in the image of God but our soul is created in God’s image.

Despite our physical or intellectual differences, each one of us has a soul which emulates the Divine.  If we can realize this in each other, our natural response will be to assure there is always room for more people at our communal tables.

To deepen this conversation, Rabbi Lauren Tuchman will be speaking at Beth El this Shabbat.  Lauren grew up in Bethesda and is a wonderful teacher and leader.  Lauren is the first person ordained as a rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary who is blind.  She will be sharing her story during services tomorrow, February 9, as part of our Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month events.

I am proud of our community and know we must always stretch ourselves to remember who else could be part of our community.  We must continue to think about how to welcome all people and help them take root in Beth El.  Accessibility is not inclusion.  I know we will continue to reach out with the same continued love and caring which makes Beth El such a special community.