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To Know Where We Are Going, We Must Know Where We Come From

By Guest blogger, Rabbi Deborah Goldmann:

To know where we are going, we must know where we come from. My vision for an inclusive community is inspired by our patriarch Isaac. One way of reading Isaac’s story is to say that Isaac had special needs, explaining why he needed so much attention, protection and help. When Isaac was a small boy, his mother Sarah hovered over him and protected him.  When Isaac came of age, Abraham helped his son find a wife. When Rebekah first saw Isaac, she fell off her camel, perhaps, out of shock because Isaac wasn’t quite what she expected. When Abraham died, Ishmael returned to help Isaac bury their father. In all these major events, Isaac was never alone.

If Isaac had some kind of disability, it didn’t stop those around him from including him in the community in a meaningful way. While it’s possible that Rebekah fell off her camel out of shock, Rebekah did learn to love Isaac and they had a family together. And even if Isaac is never alone, somewhere along the way, his family and community must have taught Isaac a trade because he was able to work and be a participating member of his community.  As Isaac’s story unfolds, from childhood, to almost sacrifice, to marriage, and to fatherhood, Isaac is a full-fledged member of his family and community.  Even by today’s standards Isaac led a successful life.  He managed to learn a trade and made a rich living from it.  He fathered two sons and loved them.

Isaac’s community saw Isaac not as a man with disabilities, but as a man who was created b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. Because they saw Isaac as b’tselem elohim, they included him in their community and taught him a trade to live by. We should strive to be like Isaac’s community. Rather than looking at the superficial blemishes, we need to remember that people with special needs are created b’tselem elohim. It’s much easier to keep those who act, and perhaps look, different than us away from the community. But if we understand that everyone is created b’tselem elohim, then we appreciate that those with special abilities have much to teach us. While we learn what they have to teach us, we work to include them in our communities, we ask them about their needs, and we make sure that they have a role to fulfill (ushers, ark openers, office assistants, or even Torah readers!).

The possibility that our patriarch Isaac may have had some kind of disability makes me swell with pride. This perspective would be a reflection of how diverse our Jewish community has been from inception. It also serves as a reminder that our community is made up of all kinds of people.  And all people, regardless of disabilities, economic status, ethnicity, age, marital status, sexual orientation – everyone needs to be included as members of our community.

To be fully inclusive, we need to stop looking at people with disabilities as blemished, as people that need to somehow be fixed. Rather, we should accept people with disabilities as they are, for they are whole, beautiful, and created b’tselem elohim.

Rabbi Deborah Goldmann serves as the rabbi in residence for JFS/Chaverim, the social- recreational club for adults with special needs, and the Shlemut Network which serves children and young adults with special needs in the South Bay. She is also the rabbi for Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf.

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