Created In The Divine Image: A Message From Our President & CEO

Diversity…..Equity…..Inclusion……..Being Created in the Divine Image

I was so moved in the past week to listen in on two programs we offered – one to our Community Leadership Forum (Chairs and Chairs-elect of agencies and synagogues) and one to our members of the Ben Gurion Society and Young Adults Division. Both had speakers who addressed issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, topics that have in recent years risen to the forefront of our society. However, for me, I have long thought about what it means to be someone who is perceived as different.

The issues of being different and not being included has surfaced for me throughout my lifetime. They especially resonate because I grew up with a sibling who was developmentally disabled. In the 70s, it was unusual to keep someone functioning at Stevie’s level at home rather than placing him in an institution, which was in fact, the recommendation of his doctors. He was not high functioning and was challenged with language and cognitive abilities. However, he could ride a bike like no other and was extremely innocent and loyal. He saw no difference between people as far as age, skin color, intelligence, body size or ethnicity. He just accepted people as they were. To me, he was just my brother.

However, others saw him quite differently and were quite rejecting in their treatment. Equity and inclusion and acceptance were not on the table. Thus, dealing with the outside world was difficult. He (and I) were ostracized because he was different. Kids would taunt and tease at the playground, ‘friends’ refused to go out with me on the weekends because he was with me, and adults stared and whispered when we were out at a restaurant or other public venue. Thank goodness, he did not understand, but for me the feeling of exclusion and people not seeing him as a person of worth and contribution was chilling. I have learned many life lessons by seeing things through his eyes.

In Judaism, we place a fundamental value in each human life being created in G-d’s Image, B’Tzelem Elokim. This appears in this week’s Torah portion, Genesis (1:27). I understand this to mean that each person has infinite worth for how he or she was created and we have the unique opportunity to learn from others who are not like us.

So, when I joined the two programs where the speakers discussed issues of being a Jew of color, or being a gay person in a predominately “straight” community, or what it was like being included as a Jew by choice, the description of the lack of diversity, inclusion and rejection brought memories to the surface. The discussions were eye opening and engaging.

At one of the sessions this week, we heard from Evan Traylor in conversation with Rabbi Neal Shuster, one of his mentors. They discussed Evan’s life growing up as a Jew of color in Oklahoma, his experiences as a student leader at KU, and his subsequent interest in pursuing the rabbinate. Some of his stories of feeling different, with feet in two worlds, were powerful.

The experiences shared at times were disturbing however, they all spoke of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion and how to achieve that in our Jewish community. In speaking of the challenges, Evan shared a framework of ‘Reflect, Relate, Reform’ to address the issue of inclusion. First, reflect on your thoughts, assumptions and your actions, relate to another person as just another human rather than singling them out based on gender, race, or ethnicity. And, reform. Look for ways to take down the barriers that separate to build relationships. Be inclusive, not exclusive.

I believe that in the Jewish community we have a responsibility to be diverse by bringing in others with different opinions, experiences, and backgrounds, opening our tent wider so that many voices can be heard. For me, people not like us make us grow.

I feel we have a long way to go in our society but I believe we can change. Fear, ignorance, and our mostly “I” based viewpoints have put blinders on each of us. In Judaism, we have a duty to one another and to value the Divine quality within each of us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained in a lecture I heard a few months ago that the U.S. is an individualistic society, however, Judaism reminds us to keep the “I and we” in balance. We must respect the other, even one who appears very different.

Let’s let our teachings guide us and work together to make things better. Let’s include and not exclude. Let’s listen to each other and share our stories. As Evan said, reflect, relate, reform….a simple framework to build relationships and include others in our world. Look for what we have in common as Jews, as humans. We are a Jewish people have a responsibility to be a light unto the nations and repair the world.

Reflect on your views and assumptions, relate to others not like you and reform the world one person at a time. There is much we can learn from each other and I know we will all be better off for it.