Community service is one of the most powerful experiences for our students, and because of this our Jewish schools have made it a mandatory part of their school goals. Beginning in ninth grade, our students must give back to the community by volunteering their time. The opportunities range from helping wonderful local organizations such as MADA, the Friendship Circle, as well as volunteering in synagogues and community centers.
Schools have mandated community service because they want students to feel a sense of partnership and responsibility, and to build leadership and a sense of loyalty. Most importantly, we want our students to understand that there is a place for everyone in our community – everyone must be included.
Inclusiveness is an idea at the outset of this week’s parsha, Nitzavim- Vayelech. The first verse says:
“You are standing this day all of you before the LORD your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in the midst of thy camp, from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water.”
Moshe is about to give his final address to the Jewish people before he dies. He could have spoken to crowd and just said “you”, but instead Moshe gives a long list of who is in attendance. The Rabbis of the Talmud suggest that the idea behind this list is to show how diverse people came together in a unified fashion. In other words, in order for the Jewish people to continue their relationship and covenant with God, they had to be “all inclusive”.
Inclusion is most important when considering people who are not typically included. In a recent post on the NY Times blog webpage, research professors Jamie Edgin and Fabian Fernandez wrote some fascinating facts about families who have a child with Down syndrome. They strongly suggested that we actually do not understand the whole picture of having a child with Down syndrome. In their piece titled, “The Truth about Down Syndrome”, the authors made the following point:
“Studies have suggested that families of these children show levels of well-being that are often greater than those of families with children with other developmental disabilities, and sometimes equivalent to those of families with nondisabled children. These effects are prevalent enough to have been coined the “Down syndrome advantage.”
Edgin and Fernandez bring evidence from recent studies that demonstrate that families of children with Down syndrome have lower levels of stress (than with other disabilities), lower rates of divorce and higher rates of adaptive behavior or skills. What was perhaps the most impressive statement was that the siblings of these children actually feel that they were “better people” having grown up in the house with a sibling who is “different”.
The benefits of inclusion are important for all of us, and sometimes more important for the excluders than for the excluded. The message of the parsha about the importance of inclusion is clear; and we often fail to take this lesson to heart. For our own sake, and for sake of our community, we must open our hearts enough to truly share, experience and understand the Godly spark in everyone.