What my child taught me about acceptance and inclusion

When you have nothing, you have God.

That’s not how I expected to start my first ever blog. I’ve had so many reflections over the last year; not only due to the pandemic but also the mile stones I’ve reached in my personal life. It was exactly 10 years ago that our family faced adversity but I won’t go into the detail here. Suffice to say, it was an awful experience from which I still can’t believe we got to where we are now.

Chalk drawing by J Wheeler, (then) aged 6

I have for a while now believed that you can’t truly understand the struggles of a group until it actually impacts you or a loved one. I first came across this idea when I was walking down Worcester with my then partner of seven years. He was showing me around his local area, places he had visited as a teenager with friends. We walked past an Indian restaurant and he stopped, deep in thought then looked upset. He was hesitant at first but opened up ‘I remember walking through here with lads from college and I made a joke about Bhopal… I said, ‘it smells like Bhopal’. I didn’t know at the time but he was referring to the Bhopal disaster in 1984, when I was only 7. What was to him at that time, a throw-away comment, now hurt him more than me because these people were like me, like his partner whom he shared his life with.

I always considered myself to be good at self reflection and quite open minded and inclusive. I have been involved in Equality, Diversity, Inclusion issues well before joining the NHS in 2014 and I have been an active member of almost all of the Equality Network groups at my NHS Trust. I thought from all of my experiences I knew how to support others. That was, until my 8 year old daughter came home one day to tell me she wanted to convert to Judaism.

April Wheeler, by Clare Freestone

My daughter, April had been learning about Judaism at school and after watching ‘the Prince of Egypt’, had decided that Jews were ‘her people’ and she asked how she could convert. I have to say, I didn’t take it seriously at first, especially when I heard it was the cartoon version she had watched. My husband assured April that all synagogues are currently closed but that as soon as they open, we’ll ask to visit and have a chat with a Rabbi. We thought this would be the end of the matter. However, April had other ideas including giving up pork, not eating dairy, and not turning off light switches. She started Googling all the rules, and learnt the commandments. We decided, if our daughter was going to convert, she may as well learn properly, safely, and accurately.

We got in touch with a local Liberal synagogue and arranged to meet a Rabbi online. Rabbi J was wonderfully patient and understanding of April and we were all very much aware of how young she was. He helpfully suggested that April may want to wait until she was an adult to decide officially to convert. However in the meantime, if we as parents were happy, April could learn about the religion. If in a few years, she converts, they would welcome her, and if she decided its wasn’t for her, he hoped we would remain life long friends of the community. My husband and I had been trying to find the ‘real’ motive for April’s interest… A boy? A best friend who was Jewish? Wanting a Bat Mitzvah? She didn’t seem too bothered that she wouldn’t have a huge party at the age of 12. She told us, she wanted to belong and this is where she felt at home. For a family who have no Jewish connections as far as we know, it seems odd but April felt she found herself.

As a family, we binge watched Simon Schama and any new learning we could get to be supportive. One evening, watching Arranged, I nudged my daughter in jest ‘you getting an arranged marriage? Someone with a hat like that?’ At this point April turned to me, serious and firm in her tone, ‘it’s called a kippur and actually I have no problem with that but clearly you do. No, you weren’t just joking about marriage, you picked out something different. You told me you don’t like it when people make fun of your name and tell me about it, well I’m telling you, I don’t find this funny’. I had been told, by my 8 year old daughter. Put to shame, quite rightly too. I could have told her how supportive I’d been all the other days. That didn’t matter, in that moment, I had teased her and I had to acknowledge how that was behaviour that was unacceptable. I was thankful to my daughter for pointing this out. It doesn’t matter that we might be great allies every day of the week, we still have the ability to hurt people we want to protect.

At first, Fridays became something we had to go through to help April and avoided eating pork during Sabbath at least and tried to work around her. We still hadn’t quite accepted that our daughter had chosen a way of life that was different to us. One Sunday, I was making our family favourite, my spicier version of shakshuka with chorizo. To save time and because I can’t be bothered to make two separate meals and my child knows this, she offers ‘it’s OK mum, I can just pick them out’. Nothing wrong with this I thought, after all, it’s not like she had converted yet. Moments after tucking in, April is sat with her little head in the hands. She had accidentally swallowed chorizo and I can’t put into words the look on her face, disappointment and shame. This made me think about the times we tell our staff or patients that something is good enough, we’ve considered and respected their difference. Have we really done enough or do we expect people to fit our environment, as I had expected of April. Needless to say, that was the last chorizo bought and any pork products after that.

I started to read up more, joining Facebook groups to ask questions and get better insight. I went into a depressive state just before Christmas and now I found myself going through the week, looking forward to Friday afternoons. I planned meals, cooked, had a quick tidy, even got dressed up. I felt like a mother again, nurturing my family on a Friday. A Jewish person on one of the group chats described Sabbath as ‘you family’s date with God’ and that’s how we treated it. We sang songs, played board games and I danced with my husband. On Saturday, we’d go for a walk and have a ‘day of reflection’. Without realising, by accepting, embracing difference, we were all benefiting from my daughter’s new found faith.

We are more effective when we can relate to the ‘other’ and feel their pain. Better understanding doesn’t come from textbooks but from relationships and people we care about, whether that’s family, our friends or colleagues. Out in the real world, it’s not always possible that we or loved ones will be from a particular minority group. We should be able to recognise our limitations and seek guidance.

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