From the CEO: On Jewish Unity and Inclusion

It seems to be an oft-cited truth that the Jewish community is, at many levels, divided.

October 15, 2015

Community leader and minority-group advocate Dalia Zilberman works at JDC's Center for Independent Living in Beersheva.

It seems to be an oft-cited truth that the Jewish community is, at many levels, divided.

In recent months that fact has been a major leitmotif in the news, in our communal conversations, our congregations, organizational boardrooms, and, most intimately, at our dinner tables and among our families.

Indeed, if there has been one defining feature to Jewish life today, it is how separated we are by great gulfs related to many issues — whether political, social, religious, economic, and existential.

Perhaps it is easy to give into this mindset, or accept the status quo that we Jews are always disagreeing, always shutting one another out, always at odds.

But there is another reality too – one that perhaps rarely makes headlines, but one I get to witness full well in my role at JDC: a community united, grappling with its differences, but bonded together in its commitment to the well being of Jews and other groups who are facing terrible odds.

From our response to the crisis impacting Jews in Ukraine to Israel’s stand against terror, from rising anti-Semitism, economic decline, and growing nationalism in Europe to a swelling global refugee crisis, we are able to muster our strength and put forward our talents, philanthropic passion, and expertise to ensure a Jewish response to a myriad of problems that worsen human suffering.

In these responses, in our yearning to reach out and offer solace and hope to those most in need, we tap the deepest part of our connectedness as a Jewish people and transcend the labels, divisions, and the differences that seem to divide us.

When we do that, we put into practice an ideal that is anchored in the concept of inclusion, in opening our hearts, our values, and our community to those with whom we share so very much at the core. And inclusion is top of mind for many of us in the Jewish community, especially at a time when the focus on rifts between us can become all encompassing and stop us from achieving great things on behalf of one another.

Movements for the inclusion of Jews in our community who have been marginalized – Jews with disabilities, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, Jews from various geographic and ethnic backgrounds – are in full force and efforts to ensure we all have a seat at the communal table can echo in our wider efforts to care for one another. And that transformation can be felt in our home communities, our countries, or thousands of miles away in places we never imagined we could have an impact.

It can ultimately inspire others to take the lead, to step out of the shadows, to exhibit a bravery and dedication to klal Yisrael that has ripple effects far and wide. That momentum can set off a chain reaction for good and one that binds us together as a people with a common purpose in a world which is, frankly, chaotic and unpredictable.

Next month in Boston, those values of inclusion will be featured at the , an international gathering of hundreds of advocates and leaders dedicated to ensuring that our community is inclusive and welcoming to people with disabilities. We at JDC proudly join scores of other organizations – Jewish Federations, educational groups, advocacy agencies, media outlets, and others who are sponsors of this conference.

We take seriously the call of Jay Ruderman – a JDC Board Member and leading activist in the inclusion, disabilities, and Israeli-American Jewish relations spheres – to make our Jewish community more welcoming and warm to those who have often been left out. And not just to include them in all we do, but to harness their talents and passion and love for our community to make it stronger. There is no doubt that that message is one that will be powerfully echoed in Jewish communities far and wide after participants return home.

We know full well the power of that message in the work of our Israel Unlimited partnership. Dedicated to ensuring that Israelis with disabilities are part of an inclusive society where they live independently and contribute to their local communities and country at large, we have expanded opportunities for thousands of Israelis with disabilities – in housing, employment, social services, and wellness. And we have also transformed public opinion about Israelis with disabilities through this unique collaboration with the Ruderman Family Foundation and Israeli government.

The lesson in this, as in the other avodat hakodesh – holy work – I mentioned earlier, is the power of our collective to transform the seemingly impossible into the easily achievable. True, it takes hard work, unbendable will, and an especially unique Jewish resilience to surmount the obstacles that may keep us from doing good in a world beset by the worst side of our nature.

But when we join forces, when we welcome those in who have often occupied a place outside our communal agenda, we overcome not just our own limitations, but the forces that seek to divide us.

In that, we can achieve anything.

And today, more than ever before, we Jews need to dream big, band together, and make miracles happen for those without faith that they are possible.

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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