As a Jewish professional, it breaks my heart when our organizations cannot make it possible to include everyone who desires to be part of our communities. As stewards of Jewish values within our communities, I believe we have an obligation to follow in the path of others who have made inclusion a priority. Until then, we are not fulfilling our task to create welcoming, inclusive communities.
This lesson is dramatically expressed in this week’s parashah, Va-yeilekh, which describes the last day of Moses’ life. Moses is concluding his many lessons to the Jewish people as they prepare to enter into and settle in the land across the Jordan. In one passage he describes a ritual to take place every seven years during Sukkot in which the Israelites gather together in Jerusalem to hear the reading of Deuteronomy so that they too can take part in the experience of the current generation as they learn the laws and the rituals that will define their identities as Israelites.
Moses uses the word, hakhel, to describe the gathering of the Israelites and specifically mentions each group of people by name: “men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities.” (Deuteronomy 31:12) All these people together make up this gathering, namely, kehillah, the Hebrew term for community. In the next verse Moses again mentions children in order to emphasize the importance of teaching our children these precious lessons.
We learn from this unique word choice that each community has the responsibility to think of its own obligation to gather the whole community as it engages in the process of teaching Torah. And deeper still, we actually engage in passing on this lesson from the Torah when we build inclusive communities and challenge our community’s mindset on what makes a community full and welcoming.
This process of gathering everyone together in community around a common philosophy of inclusion can be challenging. Clergy, staff, lay leaders, other stakeholders, and those with varying abilities have different views on what community looks like. Therefore, changing community policies and practices sometimes takes unilateral decision making by leadership, while at other times, the community must come to consensus. Navigating when and how decisions are made takes wisdom and careful consideration.
Similarly, as Moses learned during his life, leadership sometimes means going against the will of the people and at other times it means going along with their decisions. As Moses’ leadership comes to an end he gives his advice to his successor, Joshua: “Hazak ve’ematz,” “Be strong and resolute,” “ki ata tavo et ha’am hazeh el ha’aretz…” for it is you who shall go with this people into the land…” (31:7) And interestingly, later on, Moses (it is ambiguous whether it is Moses or God) delivers this message again publically to Joshua in the presence of the entire community, albeit changing the words slightly: “Hazak ve’ematz,” “Be strong and resolute,” “ki ata tavi et bnei Yisrael el ha’aretz…” for you who shall bring the Israelites into the land…” (31:23) The change of the verb tavo to tavi implies a different approach to leadership. In one case, Joshua is advised to go along with the people and in another case, to go against the people’s will. Ultimately, each leader must decide the appropriate approach to any given challenge.
As a Jewish community we still have a long way to go in order to fully participate in the mitzvah of hakhel, to gather our community together, irrespective of one’s abilities. As Jewish professionals we must hold up the value of inclusivity and work together to find a way to emulate the wisdom of our ancestors to bring into community those who have been excluded. Today we are closer to reaching our destination than in the past, and Jewish communities can “go with” others who are on similar paths to creating more inclusive communities. May we keep up the momentum.
Rabbi Adam Baldachin currently serves as the rabbi of Shaarei Tikvah in Westchester County, NY, a multi-generational community of 160 families. Rabbi Baldachin fosters meaningful Jewish experiences for members of all ages through his love of teaching, community building, social justice, and counseling. Previously, as a rabbi in Rockland County, NY, Rabbi Baldachin founded Rockland Clergy for Social Justice which aims to fight injustice and speak out against racism and xenophobia. Rabbi Baldachin graduated from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in 2013, where he received an M.A. in Midrash. He also completed extensive training in community organizing with JOIN for Justice and in pastoral care, where he interned as a chaplain at Self Help with Shoah survivors.