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When We Include Rabbis With Disabilities, Everyone Wins

Eytan Yammer, William Tepper, Carnie Shalom Rose

We expect a lot of our rabbis and most of them do their best to deliver. They head our congregations and often become public faces of the community. They are dedicated to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of their members and can be exemplars of service.

But some stand above the rest. The Forward’s 33 Most Inspiring Rabbis in America is a mosaic of the best our community has to offer. The testimonials given by members of these rabbis’ congregations provide a glimpse into the herculean effort the best rabbis exert to reach people and enhance the community.

As president of a foundation dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, I am especially heartened that the Forward’s list includes rabbis with disabilities and those dedicated to inclusion as a Jewish value. These rabbis know that including people with disabilities is just as much in service to the community as it is to the individual with a disability.

As a result, these rabbis create great communities. Great communities are humane, treating each individual with dignity. Great communities are diverse, embracing a wide range of talents, skills and minds. Great communities recognize that extraordinary things often come from people who possess different abilities, and that we deprive ourselves of their contribution when we leave them out.

There are a number of rabbis who stand out for their superb work. Rabbi Eytan Yammer and Rabbi William Tepper both have disabilities themselves but are defined not by their disabilities, but by their rabbinical leadership. That their congregants have asked them to lead shows that they can see past their disabilities and appreciate their strengths as rabbis and community leaders. The congregants are setting a righteous tone for the rest of the community.

A number of rabbis stand out not because they have a disability, but because they work tirelessly to include people with disabilities. Take, for example, Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of St. Louis. We were introduced to his work two years ago when the Ruderman Family Foundation awarded his synagogue a global Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. What impressed us most was his dedication to inclusion from the outset of his tenure. In his words:

When I first accepted B’nai Amoona’s invitation to serve as Senior Rabbi, I expressed a yearning that we aspire to be a “radically inclusive” Kehilla (holy community). That vision has guided our congregation’s efforts for the last 8 years and each year, we have searched for and found new and more meaningful ways to enfranchise those who, heretofore, had been marginalized. Our shul’s tagline — Where Jews and Judaism Connect — has become a lived reality.”

These rabbinical leaders with a disability inclusion orientation know that a significant percentage of the Jewish community — upwards of 20% — has a disability. They not only welcome people with disabilities; they seek them out.

Unfortunately, not every rabbi follows their example. When asked whether their synagogue includes people with disabilities, some rabbis refer people to another synagogue across town “where they are set up for that.” Great rabbis with a disability inclusion orientation gladly accept the honor of being that synagogue across town. Jews across North America are looking for rabbis who create spiritual, values-based communities. In creating inclusive communities, these rabbis deliver.

On the Sabbath, just before the Mussaf prayer, we say: “To those who serve the public in good faith, God should reward them, prevent them from falling ill, forgive all their sins. They should see blessings and success from all their endeavors, with all of Israel their brethren.” May it be so.

Jay Ruderman is the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JayRuderman

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