There is nothing inherently Jewish nor unique about disabilities. Nor is February a month when inclusion is more important than any other month. Nonetheless, setting aside a specific time each year to draw awareness to those who live with all kinds of challenges has a fundamental place in Judaism.
Started by a cadre of Jewish special education colleagues who promoted inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, Jewish Disabilities Month is observed nationally.
Some of our greatest Torah figures lived with disabilities. Isaac was blind. Jacob was lame, and Moses had such a severe speaking impediment that he argued with God about whether he was the right choice to lead the Israelites.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their limitations, these leaders rose above their physical restrictions and achieved their great goals for the Jewish people. Imagine if they had been excluded from their communities because they were considered “disabled.”
Twenty-first century Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families are often not as fortunate as our Biblical heroes. Many describe feeling left out of their Jewish communities, where pejorative attitudes and inadequate physical accommodations still exist. Some describe uncomfortable situations where they end up leaving a synagogue service after their children behaved in a way deemed unacceptable.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, inclusion is “the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular classes” so that each student has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.
Jewish inclusion, by extension, may mean removing barriers that contribute to others feeling isolated, unwelcome and unaccepted. After all, who among us (especially as we age) doesn’t have a “disability” of some sort? How many of us wear glasses, walk with assistance or hear with the help of a device?
Our Torah commands, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14). Jewish tradition also teaches us that tikkun olam (repair the world) is one of our greatest virtues and most important duties.
Removing stumbling blocks that keep some from participating in a full Jewish life is a good place to start. Our Jewish community should strive to prevent anyone from feeling separated or left out. Jewish Disabilities Month offers the platform to do so.
This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 12, 2015.