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Everyone is Created B'tzelem Elohim Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, February 14, 2014

When Congregation Shir Hadash was founded in 1980 the big issue in the Jewish community was the inclusion of interfaith couples.  Our congregation was founded with a commitment to welcome the participation of non-Jewish spouses  in the life of our community.

 In the 1990’s the hot inclusion issue was the gay community. Ellen DeGeneres came out and Congregation Shir Hadash joined other progressive congregations in Silicon Valley in welcoming her to worship with us. That was the same decade we had our first AIDS death in the congregation, a young man rejected by his family but supported by our Caring Committee and especially its chair at that time Debbie Pinck.

When Rabbi Joel Fleekop came to our congregation in 2005 he urged us to modify   our dues structure so as to be more welcoming to younger adults.  Our new song members now number 26 individuals and couples and have been as high as 30 family units. Before we started this program we had less than a handful of members under 35.  Three of those recruited to the initial DINKS, dual income no kids, Havurah are or have served on our Temple board. Being more welcoming to those younger than baby boomers is an important part of our congregation’s maturity and its future.

This past December at the Biennial of the Reform movement held in San Diego we were asked to consider being more active in our inclusion efforts for those with physical disabilities and mental illness. It is estimated that 20%, that is 1 in 5 Jews has a cognitive or physical disability.

Building this sanctuary we took care to make the bimah accessible to those in wheelchairs so that everyone could come up for an honor. In our religious school we have had a number of programs for differently abled young people so that no child would be prevented from receiving a Jewish education. Bar and Bat Mitzvah services have been tailored so that every individual who wanted to be called up to the Torah, could find a way to participate meaningfully. In my office I have a wonderful stained glass window, the work of a young man back in the 1990’s who could be much more expressive with his hands, than he could be in preparing a speech.

But there is a lot more to truly being an inclusive congregation. Though we have been conscious of making the building accessible physically, we haven’t done all we need to do to make it comfortable for those with hearing challenges. With 1 out of every 3 people over age 65 experiencing some degree of hearing loss, this is an important issue for our future.

We have also not been fully successful in making it possible for those with children recently diagnosed with a learning issue to experience the Temple as a source of support, rather than a pressure point in their already stressed lives. There is so much more available today in terms of educational strategies, camp programs, Israel trips for special needs young people, and support—but we need to offer it in a way that doesn’t pressure families at a fragile time.

Finally, even though we legally have mental health parity in insurance, we are far from normalizing mental illness and treating it as we would other kinds of illness. The casseroles are not delivered when someone is hospitalized for depression as they would be for a diagnosis of cancer. The kind of fear and distancing that used to exist with AIDS, is still a concern for those who are diagnosed with mental illness and seeking support is inhibited by concerns for anonymity.

This week’s Torah portion begins with a statement of absolute equality. Everyone is to bring a half shekel, the poor can’t bring less or the rich more. In counting the people of Israel, all are of equal value.


We then discussed the following statements in an exercise to determine which things were most important and how far we felt the congregation had come on each of these:

Discussion and planning for the inclusion of disabled members takes place at the board and staff levels.

Services are accessible for the physically disabled-this might include ramps to the bimah, large print prayerbooks, assistive listening devices, communicating that it is not necessary to stand

Services are accessible for the invisibly disabled including quiet break places for children and adults, allowing for sensory breaks

The congregation is sensitive to emotional issues that make participation more difficult, for example providing “walk-throughs” for those who want to see what will be happening in advance to allay anxiety concerns

Individuals with disabilities have a voice in the congregation

The congregation is a place where people feel comfortable talking about the challenges that their own disabilities or the disabilities of other family members present.


I hope that this will be the decade when the audacious hospitality that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement, described, will be applied to everyone who walks into the doors of our synagogues. Seeing the tzelem Elohim, the image of God within, we will not be focused on that which renders them disabled visibly or invisibly in society at large.


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