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What is inclusion?

Avi Ganz | The Times Of Israel | 04/03/19

“Do you know the joy of friendship, of caring and of love?
Somehow I get the feeling that you do.
Then we are not so different, we are very much the same…
You do know who I am…
I’m just like you 
-Abie Rotenberg”

We are fortunate to live at a time when terms like ‘Inclusion’, ‘Mainstreaming’, and ‘Special Needs’ are commonplace.  Our children are exposed to and taught to be accepting of the full cornucopia of humanity and I am grateful for that.  Sometimes, though, there is a power structure at play.  True, it is not intentional and is most certainly not mean-spirited but, just like we like to think of our acts of kindness bestowed unto others when we, for example, give charity, we often think of those who are inclusive as being kind to those whom they have included.  

In an ideal world, the woman who drops a dollar into the homeless man’s outstretched hand is just sharing humanity; not making a magnanimous offer to the less fortunate.  The same is true of a truly inclusive society: we typically feel the need to be actively inclusive of those who have been deemed ‘other than’.  We make an effort to include the children at the Pesach Seder when we might otherwise naturally move in the direction of adult conversation, high schoolers might be praised for including in their conversations or outings those classmates who are less socially adept, and the local volunteer EMS team might be lauded for allowing a young man with a disability to join their group.

What if Inclusion didn’t have a capital ‘I’?  What if inclusion is just what happens when a society as diverse as the one The Lord created learns to look beyond differences and to focus on similarities?  Like the wheelchair-bound dispatcher at the Jerusalem headquarters for Magen David Adom or Def Leppards’s Rick Allen, a one-armed drummer, what if their differences; their otherness didn’t matter, and they were just regular parts of the whole?

I read a Facebook post this afternoon which describes these ideals from the angle of a first-person experience.  The post was so meaningful, that I felt it needed to be shared in a more public forum and so, I share it here with the author’s permission.  Ariel Wernick is from Los Angeles, California.  He is a Shana Bet student studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion, within which Ohr Torah Stone’s Yeshivat Darkaynu operates.  I urge you to read his words and internalize these ideas that we may all live in a truly inclusive society……..

* * *

So just a quick story, it might look like a lot to read, but stay with me here…

Quick background just for some context.

So, My name is Ariel Wernick I am currently studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) for my second year. My older brother Eitan is currently spending his third year at Yeshivat Darkaynu a Yeshiva program for people with various types of special needs which are based in the campus of Gush and participates as a part of the greater Yeshiva. If you stalk either of our [ed. Facebook] pages a little bit you will see we’re pretty close as siblings, (we will also be running the Jerusalem Marathon in just under 2 weeks if you haven’t heard).

Ariel and Eitan Wernick

It was Saturday night after an In-Shabbat in Yeshiva. I had planned on staying in to play basketball so after Shabbat, I went to my room and changed to go play. Checking the WhatsApp group to see what time the game would be, I saw that a start time had not been set yet, but I figured if I would head out to the court and find people there.

As I start walking, I get a text that Darkaynu was using the basketball court. We still had plenty of time left in the night, so they pushed basketball off to a later time, but I was already dressed and on my way, so I figured I would go check out the what they were up to.

As I arrived at the basketball court they were dividing up the teams to play kickball. The guys asked me if I wanted to join so I figured ‘why not’. I took the right field and we started to play.

Instantly, the action was felt, with each play the rush of trying to get the runner out; charisma and camaraderie of the team fell into place. Each time someone made an error, he got made fun of for it; each time someone had a good play he got cheered on. Inside jokes flying all over the air…. laughter, comfort, there was just a really good feeling of competition all around.

Simply described, it was 20 guys just having a good time together on a Saturday night.

There was a feeling in the air which was very special. On paper, some may be madrichim (counselor/advisors) and some may be students in the program, but playing kickball on the basketball court it was simply 20 guys hanging out. Yes, guys would attempt to cheat and got called out for it. Yes, arguments and fights broke out and had to be defused, and yes, positions were shifted to cover for guys who weren’t as good at defense, but every person there had a smile on his face and was happy to be there, engaging in real competition.

Standing on the sideline, watching my brother Eitan kick the ball and run the bases (he got tagged out on second), that very moment is one where I knew we were in the right place, and realized how special this group is together.

In a world where instead of going to a bowling alley, one plays a bowling game on their phone… in a world where instead of going to a movie theater, one can opt to watch YouTube clips on a phone while laying on their bed; to find a group to simply hang out and have a good time with on a Saturday night is not something to take for granted.

Watching a group of guys of varied disabilities from all over the world, out in the fresh air having such a strong group dynamic with each other is something I have not seen anywhere else.

For each of the guys on that court, it is almost impossible to find a place where they can find friends and feel equal and really be part of the team in the home communities where they come from to the level of a Saturday night pickup game of kickball. But all the more so, nobody playing was doing so out of a feeling of charity or inclusion. Running the bases I did not feel separate, I also kicked the ball and ran as fast as I could. I also had more than one error, got out a few times and walked back to the bench in frustration. It was natural, it was real, and it was fun.

As the last inning came to a close, guys from yeshiva started to show up to play basketball. A crowd started to form and they watched us – seeing how much fun we were having and started thinking to themselves why they hadn’t come to join. Each play of that final inning guys were cheering us on as they watched as if it was some varsity game from high school.

Afterwards, as I played basketball, the next day, and through the next week, I could not stop thinking about how great a time I had back on that court playing kickball, it was just pure fun, it was probably one of the highlights of my year.

The sense of equal friendships and family found between everybody as they are able to live and act as people their own age and have experiences just like every other Yeshiva, is what makes Yeshivat Darkaynu such a great place. Every person might have their own parts they need to work on, and their own weaknesses, we all do. But at Darkaynu everyone is able to find that common ground and enjoy time growing, learning and simply having fun together.

Ariel and Eitan Wernick 2018

Darkaynu only has an average of 15 guys and 15 girls in their programs per year, and it takes a very specific type of person to fit the program, but the philosophy and approach they use is something every person can gain tremendous amounts from. Every person deserves a chance to grow up and be a young adult and live on their own away from their families. When everyone their age goes off to ‘get shtark’ and learn in Yeshiva, why can’t people who need a little help do that as well. Sometimes it takes a little more effort and it isn’t always easy to make it happen, but to truly include someone and give them an equal opportunity no matter who they are can help us all to make the world a little better for everyone.

Can’t wait to see everyone as we run the streets of Jerusalem in just under two weeks!!!

Read this article on The Times of Israel website 


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