Working with teens is a highlight of my work as a Jewish educator. This year our Confirmation class served as a powerful example of our community’s commitment to inclusion. Of the sixteen students, three are on the autism spectrum, one has severe dyslexia, one has auditory processing issues and one is blind. Over the course of the year they grew in their ability to understand and respect one another, and became a genuine source of pride for me, our rabbi who teaches Confirmation and our community at large.
Here are the words that I shared with them during their Confirmation service:
Each spring, as we near Confirmation, I begin to think deeply about the year’s experience to determine the essence of who our young people are as a class. Reflecting on the moments, both big and small, is a joy I look forward to each year.
I am so proud to be here with you as you reaffirm your commitment to living Jewish lives. In honor of this significant milestone, each of you will receive a certificate and a special gift from our Sisterhood. Please look for them after the service. And remember that tonight is not an end but rather another high point in your journey.
A few days ago, we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Moses, one of our people’s greatest prophets, successfully led us to the moment of receiving Torah for the first time; and as we hold close its teachings, Torah’s meaning and value in our lives is revealed again and again.
But let’s back up; because well before revelation at Sinai there was another pivotal moment. It may be less known, but it is no less significant. I’m referring to the moment when God chose Moses to lead our people to freedom. You may not be aware, but Moses’ first response to God was, “No way!”
You see, Moses was terrified that his speech impediment would cause him to fail as a leader. He lacked confidence, and argued that he was the wrong man for the job. God wouldn’t hear of it, and pushed Moses forward, promising him the support of his brother, Aaron, who could speak on his behalf when Moses was unable. Yes, it’s true. God gave Moses an aide.
And this was, without question, an intentional and deliberate act of inclusion.
The rest, as they say, is history. Moses went on to lead, realizing along the way that he had always possessed the strength and skills that God saw in him. I believe that the comfort of knowing Aaron was there for support was enough to enable Moses to rise to the challenge and shine on his own.
It has been a joy and an honor to be an Aaron for this class – but like Moses – you have truly led on your own. You have discovered your unique gifts along the way, and you have boldly acknowledged your own challenges and limitations. What makes this class truly stand out is the way that you have come to gracefully support one another rather than let those challenges stand in your way.
You are what I strive to be every day – inclusive.
I speak often of Confirmation Academy as a process that culminates in the tenth grade year. I wait patiently for our teens to grow and mature, knowing it will happen; expecting it. And yet, even still, there have been subtle and stunning moments along your way that have simply taken my breath away.
Like the moment of watching as students intentionally pull together tables so that the whole class can sit together for dinner and no one is left without a seat.
Like the moment of watching as a student, with dyslexia so severe that she shakes when reading aloud, leans over to point out words to the student next to her when he has lost his place.
And like the moment of watching as a student gently places his hand on the back of a classmate with autism to be sure he finds his way and that they don’t get separated.
This journey hasn’t always been easy. There have been bumps along the way. But you are here now. And I’d say that it has definitely been worth it.
In Pirkei Avot Ben Azzai taught, “Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” You are the epitome of what Temple Beth-El stands for as an inclusive community. You are an example to the rest of the Jewish world of what is truly possible.
On this, the eve of your Confirmation, mazel tov to you, to your families and Shabbat Shalom.