Last month was Jewish Disabilities Awareness month, and as I found myself in a situation where I was suddenly asked to be a substitute teacher for sixth and seventh grade students at the local reform Jewish synagogue, I really felt that this was a good topic to discuss with them. Middle schoolers are known universally after all, to feel uncomfortable when they are different from their peers, and I wondered “might it be meaningful for them and would they be able to relate to people with disabilities if they put themselves in their shoes?”
I found myself sharing a blessing that is recited when we might see someone of an unusual appearance. That blessing is:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, m’shaneh habriyot.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes people different.
Not only does this blessing from the Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish code of law, celebrate diversity, but arguably the greatest Jewish leader of all time, Moses, had his own disability of a speech impediment. It’s like there’s permission to be imperfect written right there in the Torah, and I knew that this was something those middle schoolers would appreciate.
I’ve reflected a lot on that blessing in the last couple of weeks realizing how lucky are we that our belief system embraces people of all sizes, shapes, colors, and even of other beliefs, and this was definitely a value that I felt that these sixth and seventh graders really needed to hear.
As the “newbie” in a new community, I have had a lot of moments lately that have made me feel very different from the people around me, but last week, those differences really hit a peak moment.
A reporter I had worked with a few years ago called me from Tucson, the community I had just moved from, wondering if I knew anything about the Tucson JCC being on lockdown from a bomb threat. I turned to social media and found that people I care about were “sheltered in place” until they received an “all clear” and could exit the building safely. The place I had worked for the last 13 years had fallen victim to a wave of bomb threats making its way across the country just because their beliefs were different from someone else’s. Those differences that I typically pride myself in suddenly were making me feel very isolated, and being so far away from my former co-workers and friends made it all the more difficult.
But then, something really amazing happened.
The next day, there were photographs on the Tucson JCC Facebook page of beautiful floral arrangements that several organizations had sent to them in solidarity.
A group of people representing the Catholic and Muslim religions stood outside of the Tucson J building with signs showing their support.
And then, the Tucson chapter of Pantsuit Nation sent chalk artists to decorate the sidewalk in front of the J with messages of peace and love and unity.
It was then that I realized something very powerful. Sometimes the things that make us so different from each other can actually find a way to bring us together, too.
As an educator, that is a message I absolutely strive to bring to the students that I teach. It really is okay to be different from each other, but deep down inside, we are all just people on one Earth brought together to live side by side and coexist in harmony.
The m’shaneh habriyot blessed Adonai for making us different, but in my opinion, we are the ones who are blessed.
Julie Zorn, formerly the Jewish living and learning specialist at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, moved to Akron, Ohio, with her family in January.