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How Do We Ensure Our Programs Are Inclusive

How Do We Ensure Our Programs Are Inclusive
Written by: Evan Silverstein, NFTY-Pittsburgh Advisor
PAR’s Spring Kallah 2016 D’var

Let’s take a brief moment before moving any further to take a quick survey. If you feel uncomfortable answering one of these questions that’s fine, however you should know that oftentimes stepping out of your comfort zone allows you to grow as a person. This is the point of being here after all, to learn and grow together. Simply raise your hand if you believe the situation applies to you.

1. Raise your hand if you ever feel as if you’ve been excluded.
2. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone being excluded and didn’t try to fix the situation.
3. Raise your hand if you’ve ever excluded others.
4. Raise your hand if you’ve been excluded AND at some point excluded others.

2016-04-09 11.16.37 The Torah portion this week, Tazria, describes how to diagnose leprosy based on certain features of the disease. It says that ‘when a person had a swelling, rash, discoloration, scaly affection, inflammation, or burn, it was to be reported to the priest, who was to examine it to determine whether the person was clean or unclean.’ It goes on to continue describing features of this skin disease until we eventually find out what the fate of the afflicted individual will be. ‘Unclean persons were to rend their clothes, leave their head bare, cover over their upper lips, call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” and dwell outside the camp.’ Can you imagine, the person has a disease which they don’t understand and rather than being helped, they are quarantined? While this exact situation is extremely difficult to imagine in our current times, the idea behind it still persists.

Sadly in our modern world, situations where people are forced to be on the outside of something occur all too often. And while there are times when this is done purposefully, such as not inviting some people to a party when everyone else was, exclusion can be done silently as well. Oftentimes the individual excluding others may not even realize he or she is doing so, such as an inside joke or secretly sharing text messages while in a social group. These may not be malicious actions, although they can be; rather they may be done out of ignorance or not being aware of your surroundings. Regardless of the intent, however, the outcome tends to be the same every time: division and negative feelings.

If we take a closer look at this word, exclude, we find that its definition is much harsher than one would imagine. To exclude is defined as “Deny access to or bar from a place, group, or privilege” with synonyms such as keep out, ban or prohibit. This is to say, when we exclude someone we are keeping them on the outside. That can mean many things depending on who you ask, but personally I see exclusion as keeping someone on the outside emotionally. Whether a physical aspect exists or not, you are creating emotional boundaries every time these situations happen and nobody attempts to remedy it.

The ironic part of exclusion is that it hurts everyone involved, whether you realize it or not. Yes, the person who feels like they are on the outside may be hurt, but those doing the excluding are hurting themselves. Here we are on this beautiful Earth with 7 billion people. If you are lucky, in your life you will meet a minute fraction of these people. If you are even luckier, you may form close bonds with a small fraction of that fraction. What I’m getting at is that every time we are exclusive, rather than inclusive, we are limiting the number of people who may be able to have an impact on us. Even more we are limiting the number of people we can affect positively and maybe help them grow and transform as a person. When we narrow our personal interactions, whether by accident or on purpose, you then shrink the amount of ideas available to you, thereby hindering your knowledge of the world around you.

Sometimes when we place people on the outside in life we don’t even realize how badly we are hurting them. This is clearly seen in the topic of drug addiction. Many theories exist regarding addiction, although there is one in particular which helps explain it perfectly I believe. In the past people used to think that someone becomes addicted simply because the chemicals in the drug take over their body and they become hooked. However, it’s been shown time and time again that drugs themselves are not the primary cause of addiction, rather they are a way for an individual to escape from isolation, fear, and other negative life situations. When addicted individuals are provided with a network and surrounded with people who care, an overwhelming majority are able to quit using drugs. By bringing these people inside, rather than keeping them on the outside, they can get better. When we are together, humans are simply stronger.

Unfortunately in our current political climate, we are seeing a great deal of exclusion all the time. Drug policy tells us to lock addicts in jail, rather than give them the help and support they need. Systemic racism exists and is pervasive, no matter what anyone wants you to believe. And most recently, we are dealing with religious freedom laws in North Carolina and Indiana, allowing those whose beliefs do not align with homosexuality to refuse service to those in the LGBT community. This is a disgusting piece of legislature that serves the purpose of exclusion on a large scale to a group of people who simply have a different preference for who they are attracted to. As Jews it is crucial for us to remember that there was a time not long ago when we too were discriminated against, not being able to stay at certain hotels, eat at certain restaurants, or join certain clubs. At the same time this was happening in the black community and whether it is out in the open or not, is certainly happening to other minorities today. And while these points may make our world sound bleak and harsh, I mention them to help us all understand how important consciousness is when navigating life.

I’d like us to take another moment, this time for some reflection. Look around, at your awesome friends, your fantastic (and good looking) advisors, this beautiful place. I want you all to think now about how lucky we are. Not just because of the typical things we think of, such as the opportunities we’ve been provided or having food to eat, but also to be a part of this community. This incredible, fun, and inclusive community we call NFTY-PAR. This is a place where everyone can feel comfortable, happy and accepted no matter who they are or where they come from. But we must remember that the vast majority of people in this world don’t ever have this type of community. Yes, they may have some friends and family, but this is something special. I urge you all to take the feeling this community gives to you and spread out into the world.

That’s the awesome thing about life and being on Earth with so many other people. You are not just part of your school community, congregational community, and NFTY community; you are part of the human community. And the amazing thing about this community is that you can create inclusion in the simplest ways, and you don’t even need any special training to do so. One of the easiest things you can do all the time is use inclusive language, which serves a couple of purposes. This language should consider the complex nature of humans, such as in the use of pronouns. Additionally, this language should be understood by people around you. For instance, when talking about NFTY with newer members, help them by explaining the multitude of acronyms you are most likely using. At the same time, it is important for us to be physically inclusive as well. Whether this means inviting someone to sit with you at lunch, bringing them to hang out with a new group of people, or picking them to be on your team, we cannot ignore this element. Finally, live your life with an open mind and an open heart. Be willing to talk to new people, learn new things, and hear new ideas. Armed with a breadth of knowledge and great deal of understanding, you can help bring those on the outside in, and create an inclusive human community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Evan receiving an award at our banquet