Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria had a night of difficult but important conversations related to disabilities and mental health on Feb. 11.
As part of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, the synagogue held a Shabbat service, led by 20 sixth-grade religious school students.
The sixth graders also had an opportunity to speak about their experiences with disabilities that they’ve faced personally or second hand.
One student spoke about having Crohn’s disease, which she described as an “invisible disability.” She said that although she isn’t excluded or included by others because of it, she’s much more aware of what happens to those whose disabilities are visible to others.
“Just hearing that kind of insight from a sixth grader was marvelous,” said Jeanne Holden, who chairs the synagogue’s inclusion committee.
Four adult congregants also shared a personal story and perspective that drove home the idea that most everyone is going through their own challenges.
Elliot Merker, a high school teacher in Arlington, discussed what he sees among teachers and his diverse group of students. Merker said he was a special education student and was sometimes bullied.
He said people have been talking about trying to get kids caught up in school after all the time they missed during the pandemic. But test scores and diplomas are not the destination.
“If you learn nothing else this year, let it be that it’s OK to ask for help from your teachers, the rabbi and your parents,” Merker said to the students. “Everyone is very willing to help.”
Holden said when her committee met in the fall, they agreed that the timeliest disability and inclusion issues related to mental health and the toll of the pandemic, including masking and isolation.
“Just reading newspaper reports has made it clear that depression and suicide are on the rise among many groups, from health care workers to high school and college students to the elderly,” Holden said.
Holden said Beth El Hebrew Congregation’s inclusion committee has always interpreted disability broadly, understanding it can affect anyone at any time, and includes physical, mental, intellectual and behavioral disabilities.
Beth El has also made accommodations to serve those with physically disabilities.
When Rabbi David Spinrad arrived three years ago, he noticed the bimah was only accessible by steps. Somebody who had a physical disability wouldn’t be able to go up to the Torah. So the synagogue installed a ramp. The synagogue also plans to add an elevator, Spinrad said.
“We need to recognize that people have different abilities and all are created by God,” Spinrad said. “We all have an equal right to be here fully. We all stood at Sinai. It’s our responsibility because we have an aspiration to be an inclusive congregation. That means everyone gets their needs met. … If we’re not doing that as a congregation, why would we exist?”