So often, when we have conversations about the inclusion of people with disabilities in synagogue life, the conversation turns to money. It is inevitable that well-meaning leaders will wonder what accessibility and inclusion might mean for their bottom line. Yet, when confronted with this concern, rather than rattling off the items on my long list of affordable options, I have taken to responding with a question of my own; “How can you afford to NOT be inclusive?” (Read more about my thoughts on this in the two-part series Affording Inclusion). To be clear, when I use the word “afford” there is certainly a reference to finances. But it is essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means. When I say we can’t afford to turn anyone away, it’s because I believe, genuinely and wholeheartedly, that there is a place for every person in the Jewish community.
Those who argue that inclusion is detrimental to the bottom line also tend to find it difficult to consider building programs and making necessary accommodations for a seemingly invisible population. Maybe you even find yourself thinking that you don’t need to do these things because you don’t have anyone with disabilities in your congregation. For argument sake, I will accept that notion (I really don’t. So many disabilities are not visible.), but if it’s true that your congregation has no members with disabilities, then it begs the question, “Why not”?
Most individuals with disabilities are not within our congregations because they can’t be – they are not physically able to enter, they are not made to feel welcome, and their needs are not met once they are there.
We must remember our moral imperative as Jews to make our synagogues fully inclusive. Exclusion, intentional or not, causes us to be a less desirable community. As we learn from 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.” Each one of us, created in God's image, has a gifts to offer and a right to belong.
Isn't it time to make the shift from wondering how we, as synagogues, camps and Jewish institutions, can afford inclusion, to recognizing that exclusion costs us so much more?