by Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer, Gateways
It was overwhelming and heartening to see how many of you took time to watch my first video message two weeks ago—and thank you for welcoming me so warmly to my new role as CEO of Gateways. In my desire to get to know you and continue the imperative communal conversation about inclusion on behalf of all our children, I plan to use this space on two Fridays each month to share various thoughts, learning moments, and Gateways highlights with you.
It may seem logical that—considering the job I just took on (finishing my third week today!)—I would naturally feel comfortable talking about my own personal disability, and my experiences of advocating for myself in the Jewish community and beyond. However, this was most definitely not the case until well into adulthood. That first occasion where I spoke publicly about my personal journey of navigating our world with severe hearing loss was a life-defining moment that led me to where I am today at Gateways.
It was in 2011 when I was asked to speak one Shabbat afternoon as part of a “getting to know your neighbor” speaker series at my synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I was living at the time. I entitled my speech, “To Hear or Not to Hear: What Was the Question?” What still amazes me most about that first time was the sheer number of people who attended that afternoon. Typically, about 100 people came to synagogue on Shabbat afternoons, but the day I spoke, over 300 people showed up. Afterwards, there were three main themes to people’s responses to me: many gained new insight on what it means to live with a disability, others were inspired (but not necessarily to action), and some even expressed how they didn’t feel comfortable talking about their own or a family member’s disability.
This experience was incredibly enlightening for me. I grew to understand that while we all want our communities and schools to be inclusive, all too often, we don’t realize how inherently non-inclusive our communities are until we hear a first-hand account of what a person with a disability is experiencing. I know now that my personal story is bigger than just me, and it needs to be told as part of the movement for inclusion in our society.
From then on, I always said yes whenever I was asked to speak at other synagogues and with community leaders from my perspective as a person with a disability. In addition, I adapted my talk to include actionable insights, and to share practical steps on how a community can become more inclusive to all who want to access Jewish life.
I never dreamed that I would be adapting my talk to share a new perspective when I became a parent of a child with a disability (different from mine). And I certainly never dreamed that I would become the leader of an organization with a mission to advocate for inclusion for all of our community’s children, regardless of disability or diverse learning needs. How appropriate that in this week’s Torah portion reads the famed verse, “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף” (Tzedek tzedek tirdof), “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). What a clear call to action that we cannot desist in our efforts to create and sustain a just world, a world where every child has equal access to what they need to grow and thrive.
I meant every word I said in my video message, and I’ll say it again here: I want to hear from you, understand your thoughts about inclusion, and learn how Gateways can continue being a beacon of hope for our children in their path to becoming meaningful participants in Jewish life and learning. I always welcome your responses.
Wishing you continued good health and Shabbat shalom,