May 27, 2020  By Yossi Kahana  Category: Education,

The festival of Shavuot, a holiday of inclusion

It's hard to believe our world has been locked down for nearly three months. We made it through Passover, and we’ve made it through Lag BaOmer … but Shavuot?

Shavuot, the holiday of gathering in the synagogue with family and friends to hear the Ten Commandments, of children showing off their summer outfits, of chatting with acquaintances over cheesecake and coffee… How can we celebrate Shavuot in isolation?

Well, if G‑d put us in a situation where we must celebrate Shavuot alone, then we most certainly can. Here are some thoughts for a Shavuot that is both delightful to the soul and pleasant for the person.

The Hebrew word Shavuot translates to "weeks" in English. This holiday marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks, the Jewish people cleansed themselves of the scars of Egyptian slavery and became a holy nation, ready to enter an eternal covenant with G-d with the giving of the Torah.

This year Shavuot begins at sunset on Thursday, May 28 and ends at sundown on Saturday, May 30.

The evolution from the mindset of slavery to becoming a free people was a complicated process. The journey from slavery to freedom required an intense cultural change as well. A slave’s mind and body are entirely under the domination of another. We were freed with what is now Passover, but it took the passage of time for us to reach Mt. Sinai- literally and figuratively. It took an epic journey -- with setbacks and mistakes along the way -- for our ancestors to change as individuals and as a people. Only after we began to incorporate our sense of self as a free people could we be given the Torah.

Cultural change is never simple. The full inclusion of individuals with disabilities will require us to inspire a cultural change just as profound.

I am proud of the way we have made this change at Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA). As part of our focus on improving the quality of life in Israel for all its citizens, JNF is ensuring that no member of Israeli society is left behind. The fact that nearly 13% of Israel’s citizens are considered physically or mentally challenged is an opportunity for us to live our values. We believe passionately that the inclusion of people with disabilities and special needs should be woven tightly into the fabric of Jewish life.

This cultural change started on Shavuot when G-d gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai before the nation: It does not matter if a person is young or old, male or female, abled or disabled. Sinai is for everyone. If one member of the Jewish nation would not have been present at Sinai, the Torah would not have been given. The souls of all Jews, from all times, came together to hear the Ten Commandments from G- d Himself.

JNF Special NeedsEvery year on the holiday of Shavuot we hear the Ten Commandments and reaffirm our covenant with G- d and His Torah. Since we all stood at Mt. Sinai, we should all hear them again now regardless of our observance level, ability level, age, and understanding. Now, like then, let us all be there and commit to being a welcoming and inclusive community for all by expanding the ways in which individuals are invited and encouraged to participate in Jewish life.

Parents of children with special needs often face challenges, and yet, many of them have found the inner strength to focus on the true blessing of raising a special soul. As many of you know, my son Gershon is a special soul. He has touched many lives and has completely changed ours. He has given us a deeper understanding of life. We have been given the gift of reaching out to people in a way that others cannot. This Shavuot, Gershon and I cannot venture to the synagogue he loves so much. We hope that next year we will celebrate in the synagogue. This year, we will celebrate at home with the souls of all Jews from all times.

Yossi is director of the JNF Task Force on Disabilities.