Teshuvah and Inclusion: What Can the Days of Awe Teach Us About How We Move from Exclusion to Inclusion for All.

I was talking to a colleague the other day about what it really means to create a dedicated plan for inclusion, and as I thought about the process, and I thought about how one of the first steps that I recommend that an organization or synagogue undertake is an inventory, like this one that I worked to develop with Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston while working with the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project.  Maybe it’s just the time of year, but this got me thinking about Chesbon haNefesh, the accounting of the soul that Jews do in this month leading up the high holidays.

This important first step is a prerequisite to any teshuvah, to any return or repentance that we do.  Basically, we can’t really repent unless we have honestly, searchingly and unsparingly assessed who we are, the good, the bad, our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities .  After all, ultimately the standard by which we are judged is whether we were the best versions of ourselves, and it takes some self-knowledge to get there.

I was struck by the parallel of the Chesbon haNefesh and the inventory, and then I began to think about the metaphor of teshuvah as it relates to the process of moving from where we are to where we want to be on inclusion.

To me, the parallels are striking.  First, there is the idea of a searching inventory.  Second, there is the idea of actually reaching out to the people whom we wronged, and those who wronged us, understanding the situation, and asking and offering real forgiveness.  This is a prerequisite before divine forgiveness, we learn.

Similarly, I don’t care if you have the best inventory, and have downloaded every item on inclusion.  It doesn’t matter if every certifying organization in the country has told you how inclusive you are, (an analogy to forgiveness from a higher power). Until you’ve reached out to those in your own community who feel excluded, to understand the source of that exclusion, and make a commitment to try to remedy it, it is impossible to be inclusive.

Thirdly, I love the notion that the sins that we list out in one of the central prayers, the Al Chet , don’t necessarily seem inherently bad.  Some are: bribery, idolatry, hate.  Others talk about the sins that we’ve committed in speech, in eating and drinking, in business dealings and more.

It’s not that speaking, eating, drinking, or business are inherently bad.Judaism recognizes the value in all of these things. Rather, it is possible to sin while doing all of these.  What’s more, since the prayer refers to sins committed knowingly and unknowingly, the prayer recognizes that we might be going about our regular business, failing to pay sufficient attention, and sin.

I find this to be an amazingly strong parallel to our inclusion efforts.  It’s easy to look at the big sins of exclusion.  Lack of physical access.  Lack of interpreters.  God forbid, but all too common, outright discrimination against those with mental illness, or intellectual disabilities, who might act or present in ways that make us uncomfortable.

But what about our routine exclusion when we schedule an activity without thinking about how a person with a mobility impairment will get there, or when we sit at a synagogue social gathering without asking the person next to us who is deaf how to best communicate with them?  What about when we ignore the person with an intellectual disability because we don’t feel comfortable addressing them.  What about when we use language in our liturgy and choreography that makes people feel excluded, as I wrote about here?

These scenes of exclusion, the exclusion that we practice as we are doing otherwise normal things, the exclusion that we didn’t even realize we were committing, are as much a part of our inventory to remedy as the horrible examples above.  For all of these things we seek absolution, but it means that first we must truly repent and do better.

The last parallel is in the doing better.  True repentance is about more than a searching inventory, some apologies, and absolution.  It’s about making a plan to rectify the places where you sin, and commitment to learn from your past sins, to do better in the year to come, that you might be sealed for a good fate in the book of life.

That type of self-improvement isn’t easy.  It requires a plan, attention, strategies, steps, growth.  If we know that our temper was issue in a previous year (a big one for me) it’s not enough to acknowledge it, rather we must acknowledge that we are watching out for it and what our strategy is to improve it.  It’s not enough to chastise ourselves for being a little too interested in gossip only to go back to our tale telling ways before Sukkot.  The idea is to look, to plan and to take that inventory trying each day, to be better than we were the day before, so that next year when we have again fallen short, it’s a little less short, and we’ve been doing better.

The same could be said of inclusion.  It’s not enough to do an inventory.  It’s not even enough to come up with some fixes and implement them.  It’s not enough to bring in someone like me to teach for a weekend and get people thinking.  Only if you come up with a plan to address the systemic shortcomings to inclusion in your organization, and Implement it faithfully, will things be better next year than this.

So what do we do with this insight?  Yom Kippur is like a mini death from which we come back ready for new effort in the new year, committed after a month of searching, and some days of repentance.

What if we did something similar this year on inclusion?  An intense inventory, culminating in mechila, seeking and reconciling those who were wronged and making what reparations or repairs we can, followed by forgiving ourselves with a strong and purifying commitment to do better, to be reborn as an inclusive organization that learns from its past but is not held by it, so that next year’s inventory is a little better, and we continue to strive ever vigilant, ever active to be better.  When the gates of repentance close, maybe we can throw open the gates of inclusion.

So I wish you all a good and a sweet new year, a meaningful and reflective period of teshuvah, followed by a sense of renewal, and the best of sealings in the book of life.  I hope that 5777 finds us not only working on our personal shortcomings, but bringing our inclusion practices to new heights.  Thank you