In the Book of Genesis, our ancestors Abraham and Sarah model the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, as our tradition describes their tent as “open on all sides, to all directions, for all points of entry.” Later, this became the model for the chupah, the wedding canopy — a symbol of the ideal Jewish home, a sacred space, a self-defined, distinctive space of a household that was nonetheless open and welcoming to all.
But what about the synagogues and schools and JCCs and camps and agencies that form the “home base” of our Jewish lives? How open and engaging are we? Can all access our facilities, our services and our educational experiences — regardless of Jewish background, family structure or financial strain? Are our doors truly open and accessible to all — both the structural kind of door and, more importantly, the spiritual portals to greater Jewish connection — regardless of physical, emotional or learning differences and diversities?
Several years ago, Jewish Learning Venture invited some of our area Jewish institutions to engage in the Inclusion Initiative funded by a Lasko Family grant, to survey just how open and inclusive we are.
At Adath Israel in Merion Station, this process challenged us to look closely at everything we have done since. As we began a major capital upgrade of our facility, we began with instruction to the architect that all of our sacred space, including our bimah, our offices and our gathering areas, must all be completely accessible.
As we engaged the Jewish Learning Venture’s LeV process to re-imagine our educational experiences, the committees planning new programs and approaches for learners of all ages kept a focus on multiple learning styles, and ways of reaching people of all backgrounds and needs. We are more aware of our language of welcoming, for professionals and volunteer leaders alike. We plan differently, we welcome differently and we evaluate ourselves by different expectations of inclusivity and acceptance.
For institutions around the Greater Philadelphia area, perhaps the greatest “takeaway” from the Inclusion Initiative was the realization that, as noble as our intentions may be, setting inclusion as a paramount goal in Jewish communal institutions tends to uncover even more of what could still be done. I am reminded that, even after Abraham and Sarah built such an open and welcoming tent, Abraham still felt moved to sit at the tent’s edge, and “run to greet” any potential guests (Genesis 18:2).
The lesson is clear: Not only do we need to do as much as we can to make our Jewish spaces and programs accessible and inclusive, but we must also actively reach out to those who may otherwise find themselves on the margins. Some who might have experienced a painful, less-than-inclusive experience in the past might be wary to venture back into our institutions and activities.
Like Abraham, we must open our doors, and then reach beyond the threshold, to welcome in people of all backgrounds and abilities. We know that such inclusivity only beautifies the mosaic of Jewish living in our communities, bringing more people into the fold and enhancing a love of Judaism.
As a Greater Philadelphia community, we have the opportunity to further the work of the Inclusion Initiative of a few years ago: On Sunday, Dec. 15, Jewish Learning Venture and the Jewish Special Needs Consortium of Greater Philadelphia are hosting a Yom Iyyun, a symposium, titled “Opening the Gates of Torah.”
Again, we will be challenged to further open our tents to welcome those with learning differences, to go beyond the borders of those tents, to welcome all who wish to grow Jewishly. Let us all follow the example of Abraham and Sarah — inspiring one another to include our entire Jewish community in our sacred pursuits. If we succeed, we will all be enriched by those who feel newly included in our midst, embraced within our tents.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station. To register for the Dec. 15 conference, go to: jewishlearningventure. org.