Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Vayakhel 5784

“Maybe it’s not just a nice thing to do to include everyone, but necessary for building something that qualifies as sacred.”

Jacob, you did a beautiful job here this morning. I know that you worked very hard to prepare for this day – to be able to chant your Torah and Haftarah, and to interpret your Torah portion in such a meaningful way. Cantor Breitzer and I, and your parents, and your brother, and your family, and your friends – we’re all just so very very proud of you today. And I know you have worked very closely with your tutor and teacher, Jessie Sander, who worked so diligently with you to help you arrive at this moment and we’re so grateful also for your partnership, Jessie.

The Torah you taught today is very important for us to hear. And is a powerful way of talking about how the Mishkan, the Tabernacle we carry through the wilderness, gets built. Naming that it was built by a diverse group of people with varying skills – that, in fact, everyone contributed to building it – lifts up the idea that there is a best way to build holy things. And that way is not by excluding some or acting as if some people’s contributions to the project are less worthy than others. On the contrary, Jacob, you have interpreted these words of Torah as a critical reminder that holy things are built by including everyone, listening to everyone, respecting everyone, and proactively seeing in each person the unique gift they have to bring. Perhaps, in fact, that is a key factor in what makes the thing itself holy.

And if to be holy, everyone needs to be able to contribute, then surely it follows, as you taught us, that every person needs to have in place the things they require to make their participation possible – whether those things are physical or emotional or neurological supports. Maybe it’s not just a nice thing to do to include everyone, but rather, it is the necessary framework for building something that qualifies as sacred, including when it comes to building sacred community.

In fact, our ancient rabbis must have seen this as well. There’s a beautiful text that we studied together, Jacob, and that you clearly drew on in your d’var Torah. It’s written by the Tur Ha’aroch as a commentary to the verses you spoke about today which indicate that people were invited to bring all kinds of different materials to the building of the Mishkan. They were asked to bring wood and gold and silver – fairly obvious building materials. But they were also asked to bring threads of argamon and t’chelet – bold and bright colored thread. And the Tur Ha’aroch explained that everybody in the camp had gold and silver to give – that part was easy, apparently. But very few people had something as special as threads of argamon and t’chelet. And it was only by including everyone, asking everyone, to bring their unique gift that those critically important materials were found. Without them, the Mishkan could not have journeyed on, and with them, the Mishkan became beautiful, brilliant, and whole.

Jacob, you are a holder of t’chelet and argamon threads, able to offer something very few people have to offer. I know that sometimes when we don’t think or compute things like other folks seem to, it can feel like what we say is not valued. But you’ve brought some of these gifts here today, in your unique voice, through your unique lens and experience, and they are valued here. You’ve taught about what would make a community truly accessible to everyone, as best as is possible, so that everyone really can contribute. And you’ve shared some of the ways that we, this sacred community, are currently falling short. So I want to respond to your teaching and critiques today because without them, we as a community are less whole, less beautiful, less brilliant, and surely less holy. And because they and you are valued here.

You mentioned that this building we’re in right now is not accessible. And that’s true. We go up to the 4th floor and there’s no elevator to get there. We have a chair lift to get to the second floor, which has helped many of our members get to the ballroom for events, but it’s not enough. And we have those couple of steps outside, which of course we address with a ramp, but that’s not a perfect system. You didn’t mention, but it’s also true, that this building doesn’t have accessible bathrooms. We do have accessible bathrooms across the street and anyone is always invited to use them, but that’s not ideal, we know. And you talked about how a lot of our teen programming takes place after school, a time when it’s really hard for some of our neurodivergent students, and also our neurotypical students, to pay attention. And you are right.

This is what I want to tell you. We are a community that is learning. And we are just at the beginning of understanding what is needed when it comes to accessibility and figuring out how to provide those things even as we know we’ve fallen short. Over the past many months, you and your family and others, including the Disability and Inclusion Yachad Task Force, have been communicating what’s working and what’s not, so that we can continue trying to do much better.

With this learning, and with the leadership of our incredible CBE Director of Member Services and Engagement, Maribeth Batcha, here are some things we have put in place to increase accessibility for all: We have created and then, with your help, honed our holiday celebrations to include sensory-sensitive spaces. We’ve added some small things like fidgets in the back of the sanctuary and large type prayer books. And some bigger things like bringing in sign language interpreters upon request for any service or program, and having a full time Yachad learning specialist on our team.

Probably most importantly, we have made a commitment to do better. You are generous in your language, as you name that we’ll never get it all right, but we cankeep doing better. To do that, we are going to need to learn more about what our community really needs. This spring, we’re building a REDI team – that stands for Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion – which will be a team of members of many different identities who will help to assess how we are doing on inclusion of all – LGBTQ folks, Black Jews and Jews and others of color, multiracial families, single parents, interfaith families, and more, and one of the major focuses of that team will be on accessibility. We’ll begin with conversation and then we’ll turn those conversations into a set of goals. And those goals into a set of changes.

Some changes we need to make are big and will take a long time and raising a lot of money, like that elevator. Some are smaller and we’ll be able to jump on those more quickly. But we are committed to moving in the right direction by listening and working with everyone who, like you told us it was for the Mishkan, everyone who is skilled, in all the ways that they are skilled

We hope we don’t let you down, Jacob. You keep telling us truths, and we’ll keep working with you towards them. Because this is your home, too. Your Mishkan. Sacred because you’re part of it. Yashar Koach and shabbat shalom.