My first month living in Chicago, on a quiet Friday, I took my bike out at 6:30 in the morning to ride up to Montrose Harbor, because of an instagram post. 7AM, I arrived, completely unsure of an exact location, nervous going to something by myself, scared that I had no idea where in the city I was, yet, as I got closer to the harbor, I saw people walking and biking, together in groups with inner tubes and pool floaties. I locked up my bike and followed the crowds of people towards the water where a few hundred people were jumping into the lake at 7AM. I dumped my things on a step and approached the edge of the water. I was terrified. All of a sudden, I hear an affirming shout- “are you going to jump?” and a young woman and her friends start cheering me on and so, I finally jumped into the chilly water. On my bike ride home, all I could think about was that an anonymous group of people who weren’t going to let me be afraid and miss out on the fun. In a new city, in a crowd of strangers, they made me feel included.
The phrase I have heard for as long as I can remember in Reform Jewish spaces is audacious hospitality; our communities are open tents, we welcome everyone, or in the words of the Union of Reform Judaism, “audacious hospitality is a focused effort on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion work,” REDI for short. Many of us may be familiar with the acronym DEI- Diversity, Equity and inclusion.
Moreover, many of us are familiar with the idea that hospitality and being welcoming are core Jewish values- from not putting a stumbling block in front of a person to welcoming the stranger, or simply remembering that we were once strangers in a strange land. No matter your Jewish knowledge, we can all probably quote a handful of stories or paraphrased verses that exemplify an ethic of inclusion. While the Torah gives us these gems to quote from, later Rabbinic texts, explains further the lived experience of inclusion. Because it is one thing to state that we understand the experience of the stranger, and another to extend ourselves to someone that we do not know.
In one example, the Mishnah and Talmud- rabbinic literature spanning the 2nd-5th centuries- asks a series of questions about the multiple types of people who do not necessarily fit into the category of male or female- כֵּיצַד אֵינוֹ שָׁוֶה לֹא לַאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא לַנָּשִׁים: in what ways are they like men and in what ways are they like women. They repeat this question in contexts of gendered ritual obligation, different legal cases, communal practices and the text even dives into the topic of marriage. The result of most of these questions are not about understanding the individual’s gender or sexual identity nor is it about giving definitions of these different sexes, rather these traditional texts explain that if a person does not fit into a pre-existing category, they still have a right to marriage, they still have an obligation to the mitzvot and Jewish rituals. The Rabbis did not question the existence of people beyond the male/female binary, instead they asked- how do we include people into our community and allow them to have a sense of Jewish life and a sense of belonging like anyone else? Whether or not these principles were actually practiced, the fact that these discussions occurred and are recorded as part of Jewish texts gives us a clear model that the goal has always been inclusion. The rabbis were willing to shout to those on the edge of the water: come jump in.
This continued later in Jewish history as the scholar Maimonides writes in the 12th century: “Every man [or in our world today, every person] in Israel is obliged to study the Torah, whether they be poor or rich, whether they be physically healthy or ailing, whether they be in full vigor of youth or of great age and weakened vitality; even if they are dependent upon charity for their livelihood, or going around from door to door begging for their daily bread […].” Maimonides explains that study and access to the Torah is for everyone. No matter their state of being, level of ability or socio-economic status. But it is not just about the study of Torah, it is about gaining the knowledge and being able to live out its values.
I am reminded of a time when I worked for a Jewish Community Center in Washington DC that was in the midst of launching an inclusion program. The objective was to focus on job training and life skills for young adults ranging from 18 to 30 years old with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. The first group of individuals basically worked like interns, and many of them were able to secure part or full-time employment after their time at the JCC. Everyone loved the idea of the program. But it wasn’t the idea that functioned as a stumbling block, it was the small actions. The looks and stares from community members. The subtle comments about loud or sudden noises from the participants of the program. Or infantilizing these individuals that often occurred, outsiders treating or speaking to these young adults like children rather than the adults they were. I remember a conversation with the director of the program where she had explained that if we want to run an inclusion program, people need to get used to some noises or different ways of thinking or timelines, that is also part of inclusion. The staff and community learned to adapt and the program was a success because inclusion is not simply running the program, but it is about every interaction that happens within the building. It was not just about shouting, “come jump in,” it was being able to swim together that mattered.
When I joined this congregation in July, I was inspired to see the words outside of the building: כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכׇל־הָעַמִּֽים “For My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7). In my short time here, I have enjoyed more than anything my one-on-ones or group discussions with many of you- listening to your stories, why you are at Sinai and what this community means to you. A sense of belonging and feeling included is the theme I heard from so many of you. I also I heard a similar story- This was the place that would welcome an interfaith family. Sinai has had rabbis who were ahead of the times of officiating interfaith marriages. In a city with a wealth of Jewish institutions, this, for so many people in this room, was the place that fit your identity, and welcomed you and the person you loved. But it was not just a common thread I heard, it was nearly the same story that started and ended with the word interfaith. I am so proud to be part of this synagogue that has done incredible work to welcome interfaith couples and families for so many years. But what is the next step?
We are living in a time that we know if we are not explicitly and overtly welcoming, then people will assume that we are not. Have we done all we can do to welcome and include members of the LGBT+ community?
Have we done all that we can to make our facility and our activities accessible to those who are differently abled – those who have physical challenges, hearing or visual impairments, cognitive difference or even those who struggle with mental illness? In an article by Christina Traina on the topic of inclusive churches, she explains that so many of them are simply welcome-ish. She explains that “You’re going to have to change the very atmosphere of the church itself. You’re going to need to look at the language, preaching, unspoken yet strictly enforced social norms–practically every aspect of your church’s life.” Sinai has an incredible starting place to do this work, but it is time to consider the next steps. As I’ve heard more and more of these beautiful stories of inclusion of interfaith couples in this community, I feel as though many are already in the lake, some may be treading and other’s, floating along peacefully, but who is shouting for anyone else at the ledge to jump in?
The work of diversity equity and inclusion and any other terms or alphabet soup you would like to add, this work must happen on multiple levels. Like the Talmud that discusses people of different sexes and identities, the leaders, the lay people, the board, the staff, etc. of this community must educate ourselves, participate in training and make policies to uphold the words on the outside of our building. On the other end- policy, programs and education are only so good when they come from the top down. It does not matter the frequency that each of you enter this sacred space, whether it is weekly or annually, all of us must do the work of inclusion.
Think to yourself for a moment, did I greet and talk to anyone who I did not know when I entered the room? Imagine what it might feel like if each of us entered this space and consciously spoke with people we did not know before. Imagine if each of us could approach one another without preconceived notions about gender, marital or family status, ethnic, racial, or socio-economic background or anything else. Imagine if we greeted each other with an openness to how each of us could be. Diversity is a noun and inclusion is the action. It happens every time someone steps into this building.
Like standing on the edge of Montrose harbor, some enter this synagogue feeling and understanding those words outside. Some of us walk in and experience this sacred space as our home, our safe place and are eager to dive in and even float along with friends. Some of us are more like I was at the harbor: unsure, uneasy, and maybe a little anxious. It was not just a few people cheering me on that made the difference, it was them chatting with me and hanging out in the water. They engaged with me before and during the event. I had such a positive interaction that I returned almost every week this summer, I cheered other people on and made friends who I continue to spend time with. DEI is not merely a rainbow flag, a Black Lives Matter poster, a prayer in English or even a lift to the bima. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is not merely a committee, a single policy, or even a greeter at the front of the sanctuary. These are all incredibly important aspects but it is an ongoing process that requires a culture shift in every discussion and interaction. Each of us needs to find the courage to extend ourselves so that this house, our house, will truly be a house of prayer for all peoples.
It takes courage and getting out of our own comfort zone to be that voice. Those words from the prophet Isaiah are engraved on our building but it is upon each of us to embody and engrave them in the ruach, in the spirit of Sinai. May this house be a home of prayer for people of every ability, every race, family style, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation. May this house be a home of prayer for people of every walk of life.
Ken Yihei Ratzon, May it be God’s will