Two years ago, I discovered first hand a fantastic organization in Jerusalem called Shutaf, which runs camps and weekly youth programs for children and teenagers from around the Jerusalem area. What made the program so special was not the activities themselves, but the participants, both typical children and children with special needs. All of the activities were designed so that every child, regardless of his or her differences, could participate equally.
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When I first saw Shutaf in action, I witnessed the most basic Jewish tenet being put into practice. Just as Judaism believes that every person was created in the image of God, making us all equal, I saw every child and every teenager being treated as an equal; equally made to feel important, equally made to feel special, equally made to feel like he or she was entitled to play games, run around, and make friends with people both similar and different from him or herself.
At the same time, it was a sad moment for me. Why had it taken me 27 years to witness such beautiful equality in action? For some time, I have worn the label "egalitarian" as a badge of pride, but my concept of equality was based only on my own experiences. I believed in egalitarianism regarding gender rules in Judaism because I had always seen women excel in every facet of life, and so it was clear to me that Judaism should be no different. But I had no close relationships with anybody with special needs, and so I never challenged myself to truly realize my egalitarian label and treat people with special needs as true equals.
A recent comment by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner makes me wonder once again whether or not he truly believes that every person is created in the image of God. Aviner, a prominent national-religious rabbi who heads a yeshiva in Jerusalem and is known for his militant views regarding Palestinians, recently instructed the father of a child born with Down syndrome that he should recite both the blessing recited over the birth of a child (because of the good news) and the blessing recited upon hearing of a death (because of the bad news).
While Aviner's comment at least recognizes that there is a blessing inherent in the birth, his statement comparing a baby born with Down syndrome to somebody's death suggests that he has never met somebody with Down syndrome before. In a moving personal response, a father of a child with Down syndrome responded simply that having such a child has only been a blessing. He expects today's rabbis to see it that way and to encourage their followers to do the same.
While it took me longer to reach that understanding myself, I am lucky that my Jewish world has been filled with voices recognizing that typical children and children with special needs are to be treated equally. It is no coincidence that I see the founders of Shutaf regularly at my Masorti synagogue in Jerusalem. Their Judaism serves as an inspiration for the holy work that they do, as evident in Shutaf's mission statement.
Similarly, Judaism has no doubt inspired the Ramah Camping Movement in creating programs like Tikvah that integrate people with special needs into their summer camps. And Judaism is certainly the impetus for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program for the child with special needs, one of the programs of the Masorti movement in Israel of which I am most proud. In the United States, I witnessed fantastic Jewish programming for people with special needs across the different streams of Judaism, and it is clear to me that encouraging all people to see people with special needs as equals is a universal Jewish value.
In my work at NOAM, I know that there is more that I can do to be accessible to all of our participants, whether they are typical teenagers or children with special needs. But while I have room for improvement, and I always will, I know that the Jewish concept of creation in God's image teaches us to see every person as an individual and every individual as a blessing, regardless of what differences he or she may have. I cannot understand how any rabbi could see things differently.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.