Inclusion Shabbat offers respect for all
As congregants gathered for Friday Shabbat, they joyfully sang songs in Hebrew and celebrated inclusion of those with disabilities both in and outside of their synagogue’s walls.
At Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s Ninth Annual Inclusion Shabbat on Feb. 1, artists from Celebration Company — an entrepreneurial program for adults living with disabilities — lit candles and participated. The congregation sang a song that encouraged people to be themselves, and Maria Town, director of the Houston Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, shared about moments of inclusion that had changed her own life.
The special service was the work of the synagogue’s inclusion committee, which was one of the first across the nation when it formed in spring of 2010.
“Our incredible inclusion committee has annually sponsored a Friday night Inclusion Shabbat in February during National Jewish Disability Month as a way to create awareness, respect and sensitivity within our community for the needs of those with disabilities,” said Senior Rabbi Brian Strauss.
Through the committee’s advances, Beth Yeshurun has become more accessible by adding accessible doors, assisted listening devices, more handicap accessible seating, wheelchairs available for use and more. Services are also captioned.
In addition, the synagogue hosts a monthly activities program called The Gathering Place that serves those who are experiencing memory loss from conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Strauss said the committee is always looking for ways to make Beth Yeshurun a more inclusive environment.
Maria Town worked in the White House on the nation’s disabilities programs under President Barack Obama before coming to Houston to work for Mayor Sylvester Turner.
She said, “Inclusion happens in moments.”
Born nearly three months premature, Town has dealt with physical disabilities all her life.
Her mother knew from the beginning that she would be different. The doctors told her, “Ms. Town, your daughter may never ever walk or talk, but don’t worry about that because we’ll have technology.” Town said she will always be thankful they did not tell her mother that she would be different and to institutionalize her.
“From the moment I arrived, that was never an option with my family,” Town said. “That one moment with that doctor who made the comment that no matter how disabled I appeared, it was possible to live in the community, it was possible for me to be included.”
In the sixth grade, Town arrived late to her first day at a new school. As she walked in classroom, the other students went dead silent and stared, except for one girl that “erupted” in nervous laughter. Town later learned the school’s principal had told all of them ahead of time what to expect and to not acknowledge that she had a disability.
That girl eventually became Town’s best friend, and the other students did grow to accept her and embrace her.
“But what happened that day was those leaders of the school did not trust enough in me nor my fellow students in our own humanity to embrace one another and tried to create an artificial inclusion that ultimately backfired,” Town said. “I was more different in that moment than if I had just come in on my own and said, ‘Hi, I’m Maria. It’s really nice to meet you. I’m so excited to be in this class with you,’ which is what I had done throughout every other moment in my life.”
Years later, Town invited a woman to the White House who had become disabled through physical violence as the president was planning to speak about a national campaign against violence. She was reluctant to come because she was not sure how she would be able to navigate the old building in her wheelchair, but Town said she would be there to guide her. Then she told Town she was worried about not being able to stand as the president entered the room.
“I had to speak with her candidly and say, ‘Every time I interact with the president, I’m afraid I’m going to fall.’ And the thing is I know intellectually that even if I did fall, he’d be OK with it because he’s human too,” Town said. “And so what’s most important is not that you rise to show him respect but that you show him respect and tell him how important it is that we reduce violence in the United States and tell him your story.”
Today, that woman is Arizona State Rep. Jennifer Longdon. She made up her mind then that she wanted to run. Since being elected, Longdon has worked worked to modify the Arizona state house for her wheelchair.
Town said that moment of honest conversation has paved the way for others to be included.
“I still carry fear, and because I was so candid and admitted that to her and because we respected each other’s dignity, even in our frailty, she is creating moments of inclusion for so many people beyond her,” Town said.
She said, “Facilitating inclusion means facilitating rest,” and offering an Inclusion Sabbath at Congregation Beth Yeshurun is an important step.
“Being able to go into a classroom and know that you’re accepted, being able to have a premature child and know that no matter how this child develops, they will be able to live and thrive in their community, being able to meet with anyone whether it’s the president of the United States, the leaders of your synagogue and know that no matter how you exist in your body or mind, you will be included means that you can rest fully and gracefully and peacefully,” she said.
Congregation Beth Yeshurun is located at 4525 Beechnut St. in southwest Houston.