How to Find Your Voice – and Why it Matters

Inside Leadership

How to Find Your Voice – and Why it Matters

Inclusion is a priority for our congregations. On this, the seventh year that the Jewish community has come together for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, let’s address the responsibility of synagogue lay and professional leaders to foster a culture where people feel not just included but valued.

Whether you are a professional or lay leader, a board member or committee chair, a member of the clergy or religious school educator, you – yes, you, reading this right now! – have an important role to play in ensuring that people with disabilities are able to participate in the richness of congregational life.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 20% of people living in the U.S. have a disability diagnosis. We tend to notice those people who have visible disabilities: For example, individuals who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices or assistive technology. But many people live with disabilities that are not visibly obvious – psychiatric diagnoses, learning disabilities, autism, mood disorders, and allergies, to name a few.

Within our congregations are individuals who live with disabilities, as well as family members and friends and people who support people with disabilities. As Jewish leaders, we simply cannot ignore a fifth of our community or treat them as marginal members.

The Torah provides the foundation for inclusion, commanding us to treat each person with respect and value. It is written:

“God now said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.’ So God created the human beings in the [divine] image of God, creating them male and female.” [Gen. 1:26-27]

Inclusion is more than merely being present. Inclusion is when people feel that they truly belong – that they are contributing to the congregation and ably participating in whatever activities are available.

It’s not always easy. In fact, a culture shift is necessary if we want to change how we think about people with disabilities. For leaders, the transitional moment comes when we can recognize and appreciate that everyone wants to belong. Think about why you are so immersed in your Jewish life – and then know that people with disabilities may have similar hopes and dreams of belonging, participating, and to contributing. Being part of synagogue life – a community of people with whom you share common interests, beliefs, and needs – helps people flourish. 

It’s vital that congregational leaders have a strong understanding of what inclusion is, who is impacted by it, and what its implications are for your congregation. It’s not up to your committee chair, rabbi, board president, executive director or educational director to pursue inclusion on his or her own. Inclusion is something that all who are part of your congregation are responsible for pursuing.

To be the change and lead the change, understand some of the reasons people are resistant to change:

  • Pursuing change questions the validity of peoples’ assumptions (i.e., “People with disabilities aren’t able to…” or “We don’t have any people with disabilities here.”)
  • Many people are risk-averse. (i.e., “Inclusion will cost too much money,” or even, “If we let one persona with disabilities in, they will all want to be here.”)
  • Change tampers with age-old practices. (i.e., “This is how we’ve always done it, and it works!” or “Our b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have to be done a particular way.”)
  • Change can causes discomfort. (i.e., “We don’t know how to be inclusive,” or “People with disabilities upset the regulars”)

If you meet resistance along the way – and you will – just remember: Resistance is feedback, providing important information about how people and institutions work. When leaders are willing to delve more deeply into resistance, they can usually gain a better understanding of the problems – in order to find solutions.

If you model a personal willingness to make change, the people you lead will begin to believe that change is possible, too.

As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote,

“When you change yourself, you do not literally change the world. You change the way that you see the world. The world changes in your eyes. You also understand that if you have the will and the discipline to change yourself, then you may also feel personally inspired to repair a piece of the world’s brokenness.”

With that thought to guide you as a leader in your congregation, I wish you an inspired and meaningful journey. You’re sure to change lives – including your own.

For more on this topic, watch the recording of Shelly Christensen’s recent webinar, “Leading Inclusion for Congregational Leaders,” a study session featuring strategies for effectively leading inclusion efforts in your congregation. Visit for additional resources.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Shelly Christensen, MA, literally wrote the books on inclusion of people with disabilities: her new book, From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities and Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. A popular speaker and leader in the field of disability inclusion and spirituality, Shelly co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in 2009 and serves as its organizer. She also co-founded the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion at the University of Delaware. 

Shelly has co-chaired Union for Reform Judaism disability committees and presented at numerous URJ Biennials, as well as conferences of both Jewish and disability organizations. She directed the award-winning innovative Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities in Minneapolis for 13 years. She is immediate past president of the Religion and Spirituality Division of AAIDD and is recognized as a fellow for her work in the disability field.

Her writing is featured in numerous blogs and articles, and she is currently co-authoring a children’s book about Jewish inclusion. Shelly and her husband Rick are parents of three adult sons, one of whom was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

Shelly Christensen, MA

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