Words from Jordan Tralins--Friday night Shabbat of Inclusion, CBIRabbi's

Shabbat Shalom. My name is Jordan Tralins, and tonight, I will share with
you my idea of inclusion- full and absolute acceptance. Recently, our
society has taken steps to embrace diversity, and I couldn’t be more
excited by the progress I have witnessed in my 17 years of life. When we
think of diversity, we often think of the inclusion of all races, ethnicities,
religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and personal identities among other
things. During this Jewish Disability awareness and Inclusion month, I
would like to challenge you all to incorporate another element into your
definition-- ability. It’s easy to get sucked into our own spheres of
community and neglect a very wonderful population of individuals. Instead,
let’s find ways to include people who have intellectual and developmental
differences and embrace their unique set of abilities. When I was a student
at the Pinellas County Jewish Day School, I learned the phrase “love your
neighbor as yourself.” This idea has stuck with me for as long as I can
remember, and it is a defining characteristic of Judaism in my mind. For
me, Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, starts with respect and treating
others the way you want to be treated.
Rabbi's Photograph of Chihuly sculpture--not actually related, but the image seemed appropriate

I have been fortunate enough to spend the vast majority of my life involved
in the special needs community. Throughout high school, I spent countless
hours at an organization called PARC that provides job training and artistic
programs to over 800 children and adults with intellectual and
developmental disabilities. As an art and music instructor at PARC, I found
that I was often not the teacher, but the student. The friends I met at PARC
taught me that EVERYONE brings something special to our world. Some of
my new friends were visual artists who created and sold paintings,
sculptures, graphic designs, and sketches throughout the state of Florida.
Others were athletes who competed in special olympics events every year.
And every single person I met welcomed me with open arms. It’s not every
day that you walk into a room full of people who all want to get to know you
and be your friend. PARC emphasized to me the importance of seeing
capabilities instead of disabilities.

As much as I would love to share the thousands of stories I have from
volunteering at PARC, along with the ARC of Tampa Bay, Night To Shine,
The Special Olympics, and Best Buddies, I think that my experience can
best be summed up through one story. This story takes place at PARC
during my Sophomore summer of high school, and it goes something like

It’s opening day, and the makeshift theater’s backstage is bustling with
excitement. As cast members hug, fist bump, and miss a few high fives
without a touch of awkwardness, I steal a quiet moment to take in the
scene. An entire summer-long culmination of patience, teamwork, and
determination will make its debut today, but the seed for it wasn’t planted
when I founded this summer theater program, wrote this script, designed
these costumes or directed this play. That seed was sown many years ago
by my little sister Ella, who was six before she could even say my name.
Memories of Ella and myself as children pirouetting in sparkly fairy wings
and tutus dance around in my mind as I adjust Nala’s headpiece. I
remember using my imagination to create and share technicolor fairytales
with her; my communication skills were thrown into overdrive because I
wanted to speak for the little girl who, aside from saying “mama,” was still
unintelligible at age four. I’d describe her diagnosis a decade ago of
“intellectually disabled” as a crushing blow to our family, but not a surprise.

For years I had been Ella’s playmate, sister, and best friend, but being
thrust into the special needs world made me realize the importance of my
role as her advocate.

Over the years since Ella’s diagnosis, I’ve come to understand that people
with intellectual disabilities view life through a different lens. And if
everyone could borrow Ella’s kaleidoscope, they’d hopefully see the beauty
that she has shown me. The same sense of obligation I once felt to speak
to the world on Ella’s behalf transformed into an even deeper calling to
bring her unique perspective to the world in a way that she cannot. It was
during a busy sophomore year of back-to-back thespian competitions and
Les Misérables rehearsals that I had an idea: a performance that would
unify my school and the special needs communities. I would show the
classmates at my academically rigorous college preparatory school that
someone who struggles to read, write, and speak could teach them one of
the most valuable lessons they will ever learn— unconditional acceptance.

It was Ella who first showed me how to see people for who they are
regardless of their race, religion, appearance, or ability, but it was
volunteering at PARC, a special needs organization in my community, that
truly helped me master the course. Embracing their own adversity and the
unique set of challenges they face, the kindhearted souls at PARC engage
equally with everyone they meet. They see beyond the veneer of our
perceived labels, beliefs, and abilities. This is something I rarely experience
anywhere else in society, and I now strive to bring everywhere I go.

So today, the “PARC Summer Inspired Performers” program is born in an
original rendition of the Lion King. Supported by a sold-out crowd of family
members, friends, and caregivers, a cast of my classmates and 30
members of PARC’s special needs community demonstrate that despite
our differences, we are all connected in the great circle of life. As Simba
releases his final roar, the audience erupts into thunderous applause and
leaps to their feet. Arm in arm with their new friends, my fellow thespians
take their much-deserved bows and clasp hands, not out of pity or
obligation, but out of solidarity. As I rise from my director’s chair to scan the
room, I see joy, pride, and more than a few tears. I do not, however, see
Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy or intellectual disabilities. I see Ella
there, too. And I sear the image of her clapping excitedly into my mind,
vowing to hold onto it forever as my inspiration to remember this triumphant
celebration of our greatest common denominator: our humanity.

In my mind, this story captures everything that this month means to me.
Ella is sitting in our congregation today along with some of my classmates
who joined with me to create the “PARC Summer Inspired Performers”
program at PARC which eventually became a club called SPARC at my
school. I hope that our story inspires inclusion in this Jewish Disability
awareness month. Shabbat Shalom.