What’s happening at … Congregation Etz Hayim ‘Inclusion isn’t enough

Nick May presenting “Being Heard” at Congregation Etz Hayim photographed by Natalie Roisman

Jewish Disability Inclusion and Accessibility Awareness month may have been in February, but Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington is continuing the conversation of how the Jewish community can be more welcoming to all people.

The Northern Virginia synagogue’s religious school music teacher Nick May lead a discussion on the power of inclusion with his program “Being Heard” on the morning of March 20.

“Music is how I communicate the things that are harder for me to say,” he said.

In the program, he shared his story of growing up with a stutter and some of his experiences, as well as what Judaism says about stuttering, individuality and purpose. For example, Moses had a stutter and doubted his ability to lead the Jews out of Egypt, until God spoke to him.


“To me as a person with a stutter, Jewish God said, ‘Look Moses, I gave you your stutter to be great because of it not despite it.’ That piece of wisdom really helped me feel like how Judaism as a faith sees me and how Jews as a people include people like me,” he said.

May has been with the synagogue since 2020, but started his program in 2018 and has since presented it at synagogues nationally.

Rav Natan Freller said that May’s presentation was significant because the religious school students were able to see another side of their music teacher. Freller said he hopes to put on more in-person events if COVID cases continue to decline.

“With the pandemic changing into this next stage where we can have more in-person events, we’re really excited with the programming we’re able to put on within the next coming months,” the rabbi said. “We’re also very happy to see people back and vibrant
in the building.”

May said the experience was impactful to him.

“This program is me being heard, it is me telling my story and speaking in front of people I may not know,” he said. “It’s as deep for me as it is for the group.”

The music teacher is a New Orleans native. He lives in Fairfax County and teaches at Gesher Jewish Day School. The name for the program comes from May’s first song, “Be Heard,” that he had written as a teen who was dealing with low self-esteem due to his
speech impediment.

One of the songs that May used in his presentation was “Courage” by Bob Blue. It tells the story of a junior high kid who witnesses his peer get bullied, then decides to take a stand.
“The theme is, of course, being inclusive of others, but also to go the extra mile because, in my opinion, inclusion isn’t enough. It’s on us to ensure that people feel like they really belong.”

May said that people have approached him in tears after the program because of how strongly they identify with the songs and stories.
That morning at Congregation Etz Hayim was
no different.

“He’s the courageous one, to speak so personally and authentically about the ups and downs of his own journey,” said congregant Natalie Roisman. “Like he said, he really is great, not despite his stuttering but because of it.”

May hopes the event will not only provide people the tools to be more welcoming and inclusive, but also to help them heal from their own traumas and learn to love themselves.

“It’s also important for you to be inclusive of yourself, to recognize your worth and to see yourself as others see you,” he said. “Because I know that if I wasn’t accepting of myself, or take me as I am, then no one else would be able to.”

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