This past summer I was fortunate to be able to work with the Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati (JFS). While many organizations focus on a specific area or type of Jewish communal work, the JFS’s efforts are broad and often help segments of the Jewish community that are rarely prioritized and often forgotten. JFS programs help serve and bring together, among others,Holocaust survivors, those with mental and physical impairments, and those with issues related to ageing into appropriate and meaningful Jewish communities. As a result, those individuals are not only physically better off than they would be without help from JFS but also supported spiritually as well.As someone who grew up closely with an aunt with Down Syndrome, I am highly aware of how hard it can be to find proper care and socialization for those with differences from the norm, especially within the Jewish community.
We often think that the biggest issues associated with at-risk and ageing populations have to do with health care, access to affordable food, and socialization. These things are all true, but those issues can also leave them unable to maintain their place in Jewish communities as well. In Pirkei Avot 2:4, we read that Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” We must not force anyone to have to remove themselves from our communities for lack of communal support or understanding.
In Leviticus 19:14, we are famously commanded, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” This is often taken at face-value, but in reality, we often place metaphorical stumbling blocks before many whose needs- and not just the needs stipulated in that biblical verse- differ from the majority. When countless community members age out of being able to attend services, or when facilities are not accessible for all, or any number of other possibilities, we place stumbling blocks before them when we fail to work through their needs and ease restrictions. By shifting our attention away from these individuals because of what they are not, we end up abandoning them for who they are.
One of my favorite memories from my time with the JFS is the time when I participated in a drum circle with elderly Russian community members at the Mayerson JCC. Led by JFS-trained employees, we took part in a communal drum circle, playing along to the best of our abilities, and sharing stories and opinions through games and activities. Most participants had needs that would traditionally take them out of the community, but this event was designed specifically with their needs in mind. As a result of this one program alone, participants were able to safely engage in physical activity, were able to socialize with their fellow Russian-speaking Jewish community members, and, perhaps most importantly, could rightfully feel like the full community members that they are.
While much of the JFS’s work often takes place quietly behind-the-scenes, it is truly invaluable in servicing the needs of so many. Because of their thorough and conscientious work, we may know that even the most vulnerable in our midst are able to have their needs met and can know that they are valued members of our Cincinnati Jewish community.
My time with JFS was personally meaningful, but it has also given me a better understanding of what community is and what a truly completecommunity is. I know that in my rabbinate I will now be far more aware of not just who isin the building, but who is not, and I will look to better understanding how the needs of all can be met. When we are cognizant of who all is notpresent we may have a better chance of having communities that are open, inclusively, to all, and not just to those physically able to attend.
Will Hall just completed his third year as a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. He has served as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Mercaz Community High School and the Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati and student rabbi at Beth Shalom in Bryan, Texas, as well as Temple Israel in Marion, Ohio.