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By Lisa Friedman
When I first began my tenure at Temple Beth-El, I met David, a student in grade 5 with a significant learning disability and attention issues. Members of the Child Study Team at David’s public school suggested that David not attempt to learn a foreign language as it would be too overwhelming for him. This wasn’t acceptable to his parents, who wanted David to both learn and love Hebrew so that he could become a bar mitzvah. We met David’s academic needs by individualizing his instruction, and his bar mitzvah was a highly meaningful experience. But for me, this is where David’s story begins. I always knew that David could learn Hebrew and become a bar mitzvah; we just needed to meet his needs appropriately.
What is significant is that David continued beyond his bar mitzvah. It was with great joy that I sat in our sanctuary as David and his peers confirmed their commitment to Judaism. David also went on to become an active member of our youth group, serving on its board and becoming an active member of NFTY. This is the success story! Without our unique programs and an intentional approach to meet the academic, emotional and spiritual needs of every child, David would have been that frustrated boy who fought coming to Hebrew school. He may have barely finished 7th grade, and he would have struggled through the bar mitzvah process. Instead, David’s handsome face radiated joy from the bimah on the evening of his Confirmation. Including children with disabilities is about so much more than getting kids through religious school. We are responsible for shaping young Jewish lives.
Inclusion can seem overwhelming for a community that has not previously offered inclusive programming for individuals with disabilities. My advice for congregations that are looking to begin this process is to start small, but start somewhere. Often the hardest part is getting started. Here are some guiding principles for building a more inclusive community:
1. Identify the key stakeholders.
Inclusion of people with disabilities is not a one-person job. While one person can light a spark, no one person can change the culture of a synagogue alone. Assemble a core group of professionals and lay people. Include someone with disabilities and the parent of a child with disabilities.
2. Recognize that inclusion is about changing a culture.
Culture change is a process. Recognize that you have embarked on a long-term endeavor and that the process itself can and will be as significant as the destination.
3. Work with vision
Successful Jewish organizations are vision oriented. Most synagogues already have a vision statement and/or are familiar with the process of creating one. Frequently, religious schools and youth programs have their own, separate vision. Are these vision statements in line with one another? Is inclusion a central part of the vision? If not, it is time for an update!
4. Set Goals
This is an opportunity to dream. Do not engage in discussions of what may or may not be possible at this stage, as you will limit yourself. (This should sound familiar – it’s a principle that applies broadly to all of our youth engagement work!)
5. Prioritize Goals
Discuss with your stakeholders what is realistic and possible in the short-term and what must be tabled for a later point in time. This is most frequently the place where we get stuck. Ideally, you will be able choose 3-5 goals to act upon, but if you must choose only one to enable movement forward, do that.
6. Get Help
If one of your stakeholders is not a professional in the disability world, this is the time to explore bringing in a consultant. And if one of your stakeholders does not have a disability or a child with a disability, here is the place to find someone who can share that perspective. Your goals will help to determine if you should seek an architect, an educator, a lawyer, etc.
Most importantly, let the rest of the congregation know about your efforts. Changing a culture requires transparency and support; keeping your work a "secret" until a program or event is "ready" can be a mistake. Inclusion is not about an isolated program, it is about relationships. Invite others into your conversations. This, too, is a key principle that applies more broadly to all of your youth engagement work.
Here are some additional tips for creating an inclusive environment in your congregation:
Inclusion is not social action. We do not “do” inclusion “for” people with disabilities. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how all the things we do can be inclusive. Ultimately, this is all a work in progress. Experimentation is not only okay – it is desirable, and it helps us to find the best solution for our students. What are your tips for building an inclusive community?
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey, a position which includes overseeing an extensive special needs program within the Religious School and youth programs designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. Lisa consults with Jewish organizations to develop inclusive practices and is a sought-after speaker on a wide variety of topics for professionals, lay leaders, teachers, parents and teens.Lisa blogs on the issue of disabilities and inclusion at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block and has also been featured in such publications as The NY Jewish Week, ReformJudaism.org, and Kveller.com.