URJ Inclusion blog posts – Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center https://disabilitiesinclusion.org brought to you by the Union for Reform Judaism & Ruderman Foundation Wed, 22 May 2019 12:39:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.9.3 13 Ideas for Making Your Community More Inclusive https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/13-ideas-for-making-your-community-more-inclusive Wed, 22 May 2019 11:40:38 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2322 Within any synagogue community, it’s common to find many sub-communities. Throughout the year, the entire community gathers together for holidays, celebrations, and the like, but it’s equally common to find sub-communities meeting alone for sisterhood game nights, men’s club guest speakers, youth group outings, adult education classes, and so on. Jewish communities have fallen into a pattern of programming that makes each group happy – but this pattern has created a culture of exclusion rather than inclusion.

Rather than looking at what’s already happening within the community through an inclusion-centric lens, communities often plan programs specifically designed for people with disabilities. While there may be good arguments for having separate programs for each group within a synagogue, there is, in this case, a much greater argument for ensuring that what already exists within the community is fully inclusive.

A critical theme woven throughout the Torah is the importance of how to treat others. It’s not coincidence that Leviticus 19:14, the verse that commands us to not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind, is sandwiched between verses that teach us about treating people ethically and correctly. Why this placement – and why this particular teaching – as a part of the holiness code? It reminds us that everyone is holy; everyone is b’tselem elohim (created in God’s image); everyone deserves to be treated equally and justly, and everyone deserves a chance to belong.

So if the Torah clearly commands us to treat everyone justly, why are our communities yet to be truly inclusive? After all, our communities cannot be complete without the participation of those who want to belong.

Most people participate in synagogue and communal life because they want to be a part of a something. They want to send their children to religious school, they want to participate in adult education, and they want to have a spiritual experience. And more often than not, they want a communal experience, not a separate experience.

As a spiritual leader, I am focused on how to bring people into the community and what more we can do to make sure our community is inclusive. Rather than planning separate programming for people with disabilities, take a look at what your community already offers and view it through an inclusive lens. Ask, “What can we do to make this more inclusive?”

More specifically, think about whether you could:

  • Alter the language of liturgy to be more inclusive
  • Rearrange and adjust seating to accommodate those in wheelchairs or those with vision or hearing disabilities (and their families)
  • Alter the language used in worship by asking the congregation to prepare for moments rather than to rise
  • Add a sign language interpreter or large-print prayer books
  • Have “fidget toys” (great for kids with autism & ADHD) available at the doors to your sanctuary
  • Train ushers and lay leaders to know what to say when someone with a disability comes into the community
  • Lower mezuzot in order to accommodate those with physical disabilities
  • Hang appropriate signage to guide guests toward bathrooms, including those that are accessible and/or gender-neutral
  • Rethink rituals so that they are fully inclusive, such as touching the shofar to feel the vibrations if one is unable to hear the sound
  • Employ someone with a disability
  • Bring in on-site specialists to support your religious school
  • Collaborate with other communities, schools, or organizations to provide social and communal opportunities
  • Alter your community marketing to let the outside world know that you are an inclusive environment

Though February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, but it’s not the only time to think about inclusion. All year round, consider the many ways in which we can make our communities more inclusive so that everyone who wants to be a part of the community can. Your entire community will benefit.

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.
5 Lessons from Camp for an Accessible, Inclusive Purim Carnival https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/5-lessons-from-camp-for-an-accessible-inclusive-purim-carnival Wed, 22 May 2019 12:35:04 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2341 Purim is often celebrated by dressing up as the brave and honest characters from the Megillah, who stood up for their peoplehood. Purim is also a wonderful opportunity to affirm our commitment to community. In keeping with the URJ’s core value of Audacious Hospitality, Camp Harlam is proud to call itself an inclusive camp, welcoming campers of all needs and abilities who want to be here.

Here are 5 lessons from camp that can help make your synagogue’s Purim Carnival accessible to all this year:

1. Open your doors with joy!

At Camp: we know families agree that we are a more perfect community when we honor each member’s talent and contribution, as well preparing ahead to ensure every child’s success each summer.

At your Purim Carnival: make sure those in your community with disabilities know they are welcome and invited. Share with them the accommodations you are making, and ask if there are any requests to ensure they can fully participate. They are often easy to make, and people appreciate being asked.

2. Make everyone feel at home.

At Camp: “universal design” implies that what is good for one is good for all. Making accommodations for someone with a disability should be a seamless, almost imperceptible change that is beautifully done and causes no one to stand out.

At your Purim Carnival: make your activities equally accessible for all, keeping in mind the height of a young child, as well as someone in a wheelchair. Make sure your game booth volunteers know to be flexible, adjusting the odds to the player rather than making it “one size fits all.”

3. Share the routine.

At Camp: on every table in our chadar ochel (dining hall), we display the flow of the meal on visual signs. Campers who need reminders about the routine do not have to feel badly asking for help; it’s there for all to see. Similarly, we have signs hanging in the bunk outlining the wake-up routine, shower hour, and bedtime.

At your Purim Carnival: offer carnival maps with the day’s activities ahead of time. This information can be helpful for parents to talk with their child, ease anxiety, and plan their time at the event.

4. Provide options.

At Camp: we learned that sometimes just by making a few tweaks, such as summoning a greeting role for a child who can’t sit still during tefilah, we can ensure the full participation of all members of our community. This is a great philosophy for keeping our eyes open to different learning styles and social needs.

At your Purim Carnival:

Make some noise! Purim, and especially the Megillah reading, is an awesome way to celebrate kids’ need to make noise during services! The grager is the ultimate fidget toy, and kids who normally struggle to stay quiet are now encouraged to be as loud as possible! Offer a variety of fidget toys to children as they come in, including the ones that don’t make any noise at all, so that they have something to do with their hands during the quiet parts.

Quiet down: carnival games are likely going to be in rooms at a deafening volume, making some children and adults overwhelmed. The solution? Set up a “quiet room” with activities to do in the solitude of a smaller space. You can also offer noise cancelling headphones, helping kids who are looking to balance their desire to be with the larger group with their need of a quieter experience.

5. Celebrate all contributions.

At Camp: Our campers know that at Harlam, we believe in B’tzelem Elohim – that we are all created in God’s image – and we respect everyone for their similarities and their differences. We believe in the value of each member of the community, and that every camper adds to full experience.

At your Purim Carnival: When it comes to the prize table, don’t just offer prizes for winning games, have prizes for all kids who dress up! This is a wonderful way to honor each member of your community who has come to participate in the holiday. Putting kids on an equal playing field can be so valuable. In this way, children are celebrated for their participation and creativity, not their disability; in other words, what they so wonderfully can do, rather than what they cannot.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

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.
A Change Would Do You Good: How URJ Camp Harlam is Leading the Way in Camper Inclusion https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/a-change-would-do-you-good-how-urj-camp-harlam-is-leading-the-way-in-camper-inclusion Wed, 22 May 2019 12:36:32 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2343 I didn’t read Leading Change by business guru and Harvard professor John Kotter until after I’d already tried, countless times, to initiate and manage institutional change. Bumping into the walls of change management (such as failing to create a sense of urgency or declaring victory too soon) was my way of learning by doing, and despite the frustrations that came with that trial-by-error approach, I arrived at URJ Camp Harlam in 2011 with enthusiasm to help a venerable organization fortify its outstanding reputation. I was highly motivated and believed this reclamation effort would only take me a few years.

In the 25 years since I entered the field, metrics to assess the performance of residential summer camps haven’t changed much: enrollment, retention, net surplus. This is where the challenge at Harlam showed itself.

We knew Harlam needed a change, but there was no objective crisis in our numbers. Enrollment was up and down but concerning only by the highest standards. Camper retention rates also were lower than desired, but with active registration of new campers each year, these rates didn’t have an adverse effect on the bottom line. And financially, Harlam was stable.

In the absence of some of the low-hanging fruit a new leader might normally have the chance to feast on in their earliest days, I set off for my first summer on-site to try to better understand where to focus my change efforts.

For multiple generations, campers at Harlam had thrived. Each group or unit was full of smiling faces, and the young adults caring for them exuded a sense of spirit and commitment to camp. Upon closer observation and inquiry, though, there was a problem: The retention numbers that showed an average of only 7 of 10 age-eligible campers coming back each season were, indeed, an important indicator of something I was now understanding on a deeper level.

Harlam had unintentionally become an environment that catered to the typical child, the strong child, the social child, or the more independent child – while the child who needed more personal attention or support in order to succeed was sometimes left to fend for themselves.

Kids that did well were “camp kids;” children that didn’t do well were labeled as “not meant to go to camp.” There were examples of exceptional success at working with these unsuccessful outliers, those cases appeared to be dependent on the presence of an especially talented staff member or supportive peer who contributed to success – not the evidence of an institutional ethos that elevated the care of campers to be truly equitable.

The situations in which children’s mental, emotional, or social health (MESH) was being effectively considered and addressed were not consistently managed nor replicable, and despite having wonderful children surrounded by wonderful staff members, an overall failure in approach and systems was having measurable impact. We knew from our teachings that we were to, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very carefully” (Deuteronomy 4:9,) but our efforts weren’t meeting our aspirations.

On opening day, children step into camp as already extraordinary. They possess all sorts of skills, talents, and dreams, and – though we know they are still developing and will need help – we sometimes misunderstand our role. We are not in the child repair business, but one of care. The idiosyncrasies, behavior, and abilities that make every child unique are for our institutions to nurture and lift up, and – where necessary and possible – we should recognize, compliment, and support.

In 2011 and more clearly each year since then, we see that children arrive at camp with more than bathing suits and sunscreen packed in their duffels; they bring their fears and trauma, too. With these newfound realizations, we needed to make a shift at Harlam to ensure that our outstanding community, program, and organization could continue to build on its foundation as a haven for Jewish continuity and personal growth.

The change process that ensued has led to our camp being known for its “Open and Safe” commitment rather than “survival of the fittest.” With the leadership and expertise provided by Harlam professionals such as Lisa David, Cori Miller, and Lori Zlotoff, the reiterate process of experimentation and improvement has helped our camp develop a more authentically inclusive community – and has included moments of awe and inspiration that I had not yet seen in my career. While Kotter’s research and theory have since become fundamental to me as a leader, the evolution in Harlam’s identity is a process more aligned with a strategy outlined by Jim Collins in Built to Last: establishment of a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” Our “BHAG” – creating a whole and just community where campers and staff can feel safe, supported, protected, and challenged to grow – has been transformational for us.

Our organizational change process has reached beyond summer programming to influence our entire agency, as well as our partners. In the last year, we’ve convened educational experiences to share our learning and offer camp as a classroom; led Mental Health First Aid Training for Youth events with congregational professionals, educators, and clergy (two Harlam leaders have earned certification in this eight-hour certification course); and even helped to inspire the coming launch of a URJ Camp network-wide project (the Briut Initiative) to underscore and enhance the work of supporting the MESH needs of campers and staff.

The lesson we’ve learned is that Harlam is healthier because we opened ourselves up to and held ourselves accountable for making a change. Although it’s been difficult, we would never go back to the way it was before.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud of its Presidential Initiative on Disabilities Inclusion, an ongoing effort to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

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.
Addressing Our Teens’ Mental Health Needs https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/addressing-our-teens-mental-health-needs Wed, 22 May 2019 12:39:06 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2347 Adolescence is one of the most change-filled periods of life, a time that’s both turbulent and exciting. During this confusing period, teens may find that previously cherished relationships – including those with parents, old friends, and congregations – now feel confining or suffocating, even though such connections can provide stability and support. Sometimes, they can even provide a lifeline.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five teens and young adults lives with a mental health condition, which can include eating disorders, mood disorders, addictions, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia – and yet, only half of these individuals receive treatment.

Many mental health conditions first become evident in the teen and young adult years, so it’s a crucial time for sharing information, reducing stigma, and offering help – but it’s not always easy for teens and those who support them (including their friends, parents, teachers, youth advisors, and clergy) to determine whether their feelings are part of the normal upheaval of adolescence or signs of more serious issues. In the case of the latter, help is vital in reducing suffering and even saving lives.

Our Jewish tradition commands that we not stand by while our brothers and sisters suffer. That’s why the Reform Movement is joining with others across the world to provide information that offers both help and hope – especially during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Our Reform entities – including congregations, youth programs, summer camps, and outreach programs – aim to provide accepting, encouraging places where Jewish young adults can feel a sense of belonging, develop skills to manage their emotions, and create enduring relationships in the context of their faith and values. These same settings can further support teen mental health by offering information about the signs of various mental health conditions, providing mental health referrals, and offering safe spaces for teens to feel a sense of belonging and support during difficult times.

Of course, our communities can only provide such assistance when they have access to accurate information, effective programs, and lists of places to refer young people. How can we open conversations about mental health and illness?

  1. Speak about mental illness: Mention mental health conditions from the bimah, in newsletters, emails, and in general conversations, talking about them as common occurrences for which we need not feel shame and for which there is effective treatment. For example, when offering prayers for healing, clergy can mention that we include in our prayers those who are living with mental health conditions, asking for continued strength, healing, and greater openness in our community.
  2. Share real-life stories: Invite speakers to discuss their experiences with mental health conditions during b’nai mitzvah training, confirmation curriculum, youth events, and young adult education programs. Hearing the stories and voices of those who have received help can be very effective in spurring those who suffer from mental illness to seek treatment.
  3. Provide lifesaving information: Share information from mental health professionals and invite them to speak at events, too. Contact your local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), Jewish Family Services, and other mental health associations to book speakers, plan programs, and learn more about how to help those with mental health conditions.

Though local resources will differ, the following online information may help community leaders develop individualized programming:

  • Say it Out Loud: This educational program from NAMI includes a toolkit for adult-led discussions and a series of videos of teens talking about their own experiences. This site also provides a list of warning signs to help distinguish mental health symptoms from ordinary fluctuations in mood and behavior.
  • mADAP | A Mobile App for Adolescent Depression Awareness: Presented by Johns Hopkins Medicine, this mobile app for depression awareness can be used as a curriculum supplement or as a freestanding source of information on adolescent mood disorders.
  • Depression in Teens: This page from Mental Health America provides additional information and referral sources on the topic.

Visit the DisabilitiesInclusion.org, the Reform Movement’s online learning portal, to learn more about our upcoming series of live webinars about mental health. For more on this topic, register now for “Addressing Our Teens’ Mental Health Needs,” taking place May 2nd at 2pm ET.

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.
Comedy, Disability, and the Inclusive Synagogue: An ELI Talk https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/comedy-disability-and-the-inclusive-synagogue-an-eli-talk Wed, 22 May 2019 12:06:06 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2334 Pam Schuller is my hero.

She’s not just my hero because she’s one of the outstanding Reform Jewish youth professionals who works day and night to connect with so many of teens and congregations in NFTY’s Garden Empire Region (which includes central and northern New Jersey and New York’s Rockland and Orange counties).

She’s not just my hero because she dressed as a peach at NFTY Convention, dancing and sharing a great schtick.

No, Pam is my hero and my teacher because of her deep and profound commitment to strengthening our communities through helping us be truly welcoming, inviting and inclusive.

Pam is my hero because she understands, through personal experience, that our communities are stronger when they are diverse, accepting, and embracing of all of their members.

I hope you will take 12 minutes to watch Pam’s recently released ELI Talk, “I am Here; Hear Me Bark: Comedy, Disability, and the Inclusive Synagogue.” Then, read the interview with her and share in our pride in all that she does for her community, for the Reform Movement, for the Jewish people, and beyond.

What was one defining moment for you that steered you into inclusion work?

Pam: One moment I didn’t mention in my ELI talk stands out. In eighth grade religious school, I was making loud noises from Tourette’s. The teacher was extremely frustrated and was (understandably) having a hard time teaching with the disruption, so she asked me to leave. When I got up to leave, another student said something like, “She can stay. We’re used to her Tourette’s.”

The teacher went back to teaching. Moments later, my noises got bad again, and she asked me to leave. This time, she was more frustrated, but yet again, my peers stood up for me. A third time this happened, and the teacher raised her voice and threatened to quit, clearly at a breaking point. Not wanting to cause any issues, I left the room with my head down.

To my surprise, the entire class followed me in support.

I have never again questioned the ideas that kids and teens can make a real difference. I don’t remember the name of that teacher, but I can tell you the names of every student in that class. That day could have been the worst, but I remember it as one of the best. When I work with kids and teens to create their inclusive communities, I have no doubt that they can and will make a positive and lasting difference.

You could have turned away from Judaism. What made you decide to make this your life work?

For a while, I did give up on being Jewish. I felt like there wasn’t a place for me. What I knew was that I loved Jewish summer camp and felt completely at home and free to be myself atURJ Goldman Union Camp Institute, the Reform Movement’s summer camp in Zionsville, IN. I remember having long conversations with a very patient camp faculty member, Rabbi Sandford Kopnick. With him, I questioned if I should be Jewish – and later how to be Jewish – when I still felt like the community outside of camp didn’t want me to be a part of it.

But I was ready to be connected. If not for Jewish summer camp, I don’t think I would be Jewish today. I remember the way that being at camp made me feel, and I want to do my best to give those opportunities and connections to as many other kids as possible.

Stand-up comedy is another passion of yours. How do improv and stand-up play a role in your life?

I am 4’7” and I have Tourette’s; sometimes I joke that genetics made me a stand-up comic. In all honesty, comedy and improv make me a better person.

I grew up with people constantly staring at me, asking questions, and sometimes laughing. I had a favorite teacher who got me to try improvisational theater. After it she said, “You’re so afraid of people staring at you in public, but when you’re on stage, you embrace it. How can you begin to embrace life in the same way?”

From that moment, I started to be Ok with people staring at me. Sometimes in response, I say something funny; sometimes I use it as a teaching moment; sometimes I let it go. Just like in an improv show, I live in the moment.

To this day, stand-up comedy is my outlet. In fact, just last week I found my Tourette’s getting a bit worse than usual. My first thought was, “I should probably do stand-up tonight and schedule a neurologist appointment.” I have realized that to best support myself, I need both of those things – equally.

What three tips would you give to help make a community more inclusive?

  1. It all starts with the mindset! A congregation who has buy-in in creating an inclusive community is a congregation that will make real change. One person can’t do it all; invest in community buy-in.
  2. Be OK with not knowing the answers. I hear people struggling with talking about inclusion because they don’t know the correct language. That’s OK. Nobody has it perfect! The language changes all the time. When we go into something with good intentions, we’re open to feedback and change both in ourselves and in our communities.
  3. Ask questions and talk to families. I use the “tell me about” method. When a teen wants to join a youth program, and I am working to learn more about that child to set them up for success, I often ask questions that start with, “Tell me about…” My goal is not to get a diagnosis but to learn about that individual and their family. The more I know, the more we are a team. The more we are a team, the more we can set that teen and family up for success. I remind people that once you have met one person with Tourette’s, you have not met all people with Tourette’s. The same goes for any diagnosis, special interest, or passion. If you have met one painter, you have not met all painters. The more we get to know the person, the more we know all of the ways that they add to our community.

Reform professionals, lay leaders, youth, clergy, educators and congregants are invited to use the study sessions and resources at www.disbabilitiesinclusion.org to develop additional skills, strategies and understanding to make possible the full participation of people with disabilities in every area of congregational life. The Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center is made possible by a partnership between the URJ and the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Exemplar Congregations Pave the Way for Creating a Network of Inclusion https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/exemplar-congregations-pave-the-way-for-creating-a-network-of-inclusion Wed, 22 May 2019 11:55:49 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2324 Inclusion is a lengthy process that requires time, dedication, and a network of people committed to making change. Although it’s is a continuous, ever-evolving, and indeed never-ending process, 27 Reform congregations were recognized at the recent URJ Biennial as Exemplar Congregations, those that have made great strides in inclusion in all facets of congregational life.

Some Exemplar Congregations are very large, with membership numbering in the thousands; others are much smaller, with membership in the dozens. Some have inclusion committees, while others do not. Some were founded with principles of inclusion, while others have only come to it more recently, often because of a need in the community, led by a few dedicated individuals whose commitment drives the congregation’s efforts to achieve buy-in from community stakeholders and become more inclusive.

And yet, regardless of their differences, all Exemplar Congregations have a few important things in common.

Exemplar Congregations understand that education is a key component of successfully becoming an inclusive congregation, and they have begun the often-challenging process of igniting the cultural change necessary to bring clergy, lay leadership, and congregants on board.

Through their work, they provide a unique blueprint that other congregations can follow during their own journeys to inclusion, with focus on important areas such as architectural and physical accommodations, transportation, religious school, b’nai mitzvah, worship, and beyond.

Importantly, all of these Exemplar Congregations have agreed to act as mentors to other Reform congregations pursuing inclusion.

All of our Exemplar Congregations are featured on the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center site, launched in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation as part of the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Initiative. An online portal designed to better enable congregations to become more inclusive, the site is a vital component of the Reform Movement’s ongoing work to ensure the inclusion of people of all abilities in congregational life.

The site, which features skill-building webinars, videos, and print resources, also provides a platform to connect staff members, lay leaders, and congregants from Reform congregations across North America. These connections offer congregations opportunities to learn from and educate one another on issues of inclusion.

Each Exemplar Congregation is the focus of a dedicated profile page on the site that tells the story of its path toward inclusion and shares important information and resources, including the congregation’s history, a list of local and national organizations they’ve worked with, and future plans for continued inclusion efforts. By learning about each Exemplar Congregation – its past, present, and future – visitors can begin to understand both what is possible and how it can be achieved in their own communities.

The online learning center is just one component of the Reform Movement’s continued efforts to educate Reform Jews and others around the world about inclusion issues by presenting at conferences and on webinars and consulting with individual communities. By creating a network of communities and congregations dedicated to cutting-edge disabilities inclusion, the URJ strengthens and enriches the cadre of inclusion advocates and educators, promotes meaningful advances in the field, and positively impacts the place of disabilities inclusion in religious settings, creating meaningful change for today and the future.

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.
How Synagogues Can Be a House of Prayer for All People https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/how-synagogues-can-be-a-house-of-prayer-for-all-people Wed, 22 May 2019 12:05:10 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2332

“I will bring them to My holy mount, and I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

How is it possible to achieve the Prophet Isaiah’s promise when our synagogues still struggle to include people with disabilities – those who use wheelchairs or who communicate in ways that require us to change how we share information? Are we approaching this conversation with the assumption that one size fits everyone who lives with a disability? Have we committed ourselves to unrealistic expectations of what it means to include everyone?

It depends on how we interpret this iconic statement in the book of Isaiah – starting with assumptions that lie in the words “for all people.”

Many congregations assume that in order to open their doors to welcome everyone, they must spend a lot of money, change how they do things, start a “special” program for “those” people… They become so focused on “all people” that they lose God’s intent for a house of prayer.

Isaiah says that God will bring the people to God’s holy mount and cause them to rejoice in God’s house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon God’s altar. This is a place where each person can rejoice, can contribute and can participate. This is God’s definition of inclusion, not ours – and it’s time for us, in this month leading up to the Days of Awe, to expand our thinking about community, participation and belonging and what it really takes to achieve God’s inclusion.

Many Reform congregations have been devoted to the practical strategies to become more inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them. I call this the “structure of inclusion,” which is, as we have seen across the Reform movement, well-embraced and very effective.

It’s our responsibility to organize ourselves to keep inclusion on the front-burner of congregational concerns. We need to continuously raise awareness and educate everyone in our synagogue community, and we need lay and professional leaders to shepherd how we do this.

The structure of inclusion creates and implements all tangible things we do: assessing the congregation, starting an inclusion committee, creating a roadmap or work plan, adding language that invites people to request accommodations, arranging ASL interpreters, inviting people with disabilities to participate in services, planning meaningful programs during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and making sure we continuously evaluate and improve upon deliberate actions that promote inclusion.

When we focus too much on the structure of inclusion, though, we often find ourselves distracted from why we do this work in the first place, and that’s when we turn to the other part of Isaiah’s statement. This is when we tend to forget that the very people we seek to include are drawn to the synagogue and the community for the same reasons the rest of us are – to rejoice, to worship, and to be part of the community. People with disabilities are not congregational mitzvah projects.

This is belonging, the reason we’ve embarked upon the inclusion journey in the first place.

Belonging is a human need – and there is no greater opportunity to belong than in the Jewish community. Belonging is about relationships and personal connections, about respecting and being respected, about valuing and being valued. As the great faith community inclusion expert Ginny Thornburgh once said, “There should be no barriers to God’s love.”

Inclusion efforts should diminish barriers and obstacles because we see each person created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. We see equity in our relationships with each other. We treat each other with respect and dignity, and we make no assumptions about what is important to each person or what they want from their personal synagogue participation.

Think about the ways you are included in your synagogue community. Do you get to do all the things that are important to you, things that give your life quality and meaning?

Shouldn’t that be what inclusion is all about? Inclusion means creatiing processes that eliminate obstacles to belonging so that all people can rejoice, worship, learn, find comfort and solace in times of need, rejoice with other Jews, and contribute to the community.

The spirit of inclusion promises a richer community for all.

To learn more about this topic, join Shelly Christensen’s live webinar “How to Be A House of Prayer for All People” on September 8 at 2:00pm EDT. Learn more about the Union for Reform Judaism’s High Holidays Inclusion Learning Series.

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.
How Synagogues Can Prioritize Disability Inclusion This High Holiday Season https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/how-synagogues-can-prioritize-disability-inclusion-this-high-holiday-season Wed, 22 May 2019 11:59:01 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2328 With the High Holidays just around the corner, Jews all over the world will be asking themselves how they can lead more meaningful and moral lives. Synagogue communities, too, will be asking themselves how they can become more holy and inclusive communities.

In my years of involvement with disability inclusion, I’ve observed that change often occurs because a rabbi, a professional or a lay leader understands the value of inclusion of all people and makes it a priority. If there ever was a time for leaders to step up to the plate and help their synagogues become more inclusive — to welcome diverse people with varying abilities and find a place for them in the community — it’s during the Days of Awe.

Liz Offen, director of New England Yachad, an Orthodox Union-affiliated organization that works toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, said that the High Holidays seem almost designed to raise awareness of people with disabilities. “Every aspect of the high holiday experience is infused with rituals that draw on the senses,” she said. “From the food we eat, to the sound and vibrations of the shofar, we are reminded of the varied ways people experience life.”

So how can congregations take advantage of this calling to become more inclusive communities?

The obvious answer is that they can implement best practices in making their physical spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. They can print books with larger text, embrace hearing loop technologies to assist people who are hard of hearing, train ushers to recognize and assist people with disabilities, make every part of the building wheelchair accessible, and establish an inclusion committee to continually expand inclusive practices.

The broader answer is that they can demonstrate leadership and work to create a powerful culture of inclusion among congregants so that inclusion pervades all aspects of congregational life, and thereby change basic attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Ed Frim, an inclusion specialist at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that true inclusion goes much deeper than making synagogue life accessible. “Inclusive congregations are mindful of everyone who is part of the community,” he said. “They establish a culture that takes for granted that all, including those with disabilities, have the right to fully participate as part of the congregation.”

“It’s not just about training ushers to be welcoming to people with disabilities and helping them find their way, it’s about turning the entire congregation into ushers, who seek to create a welcoming environment,” he said.

Just as important as building a culture of inclusion is affecting a shift in attitude about how we think of disabilities. Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto recalls an aha moment when his perspective on disabilities changed from seeing just the disability to seeing the whole person.

A senior in high school had come to speak at a retreat Cheses was attending. The student had a muscular disorder that required him to be in a wheelchair. It was clear from the moment he began speaking that this charismatic young man was not defined by his disability.

“He asked us to take out a piece of paper and make a list of [perceived] personal shortcomings …,” recounted Rabbi Cheses. “We were then instructed to introduce ourselves to the person next to us in the following way: “Hi, my name is X, and I have such and such ….”

“For a moment, I felt what it was like to be identified by my personal limitations…as if my passions and talents were being overshadowed and pushed aside by something beyond my control.”

It was that realization, among others, that motivated Rabbi Cheses to seek change in his congregation. The congregation made physical changes — among other things, it built an accessible ark — but the rabbi also sought to make spiritual changes and help his congregants experience the same aha moment that he had at the retreat.

Indeed, it is these spiritual changes — viewing all of God’s people as bringing unique contributions to the world — that can turn a congregation from a collection of people to a holy community. This time of reflection and renewal provides the perfect moment for such a shift to take place.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. He’s on Twitter @jayruderman. This piece originally appeared on JTA and is republished with permission.

Want to learn more about inclusion? The Ruderman Inclusion Summit, held Nov. 1-2, 2015 , in Boston, will foster strategic advocacy and awareness, peer to peer learning, best practices, networking, and more. Register now at inclusion2015.org.

How to Foster Inclusive Worship in Your Congregation https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/how-to-foster-inclusive-worship-in-your-congregation Tue, 21 May 2019 11:00:36 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2313 The purpose of this webinar, “Inclusive Worship for Clergy – A Discussion,” was to provide our communities with ideas and broader thinking around disabilities inclusion – particularly in worship and prayer settings. Whether or not you’re a member of the clergy, we hope it will answer some of your questions about disabilities inclusion and provide best practices that you can adapt in ways that are right for your settings – some simple, respectful principles and approaches to make it possible for all to feel welcome and able to access prayer.

This discussion was originally recorded to help make worship inclusive at the 2017 URJ Biennial. Though it was designed for clergy and worship leaders, it has universal applicability to all who come together in prayer and who care about hospitality and accessibility for everyone. The themes are applicable for every congregation and can be adapted to best fit your community.

A document on inclusive worship tips and best practices for clergy is also available as a resource on disabilitiesinclusion.org. Throughout the site, you’ll find plenty of resources for inclusion and welcoming people with fisabilities in your congregation.

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.
How to Say “Yes, and” to Inclusion https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/resource-blog/how-to-say-yes-and-to-inclusion Wed, 22 May 2019 12:32:08 +0000 https://disabilitiesinclusion.org/?p=2338 I live in the Jewish education world, while my sister comes from the improv world. Yet, even with my formal training as an educator, it is my sister who taught me the greatest lesson about inclusion of those with special needs in the classroom and the congregational community. She taught me the rule of “Yes, and…” In an improv scene, you should agree to the information your partner gives you, and then add something to it. If, for example, your partner tells you he loves your dress and asks if it is new, you say, “Yes, and I made it from curtains, like Maria in The Sound of Music.”

How does this translate to the world of Jewish education? Judaism believes that every human being is created in God’s image and therefore has unique gifts to share. Yes, and our goal as Jewish professionals is to create a kehilah kedosha, a sacred community, where everyone feels welcomed and valued. Yes, and if we are going to “walk the walk” – to really act out our value system rather than just give it lip service – we must truly create a seat in the classroom for everyone.

Yes, this all sounds wonderful, and how do I make it a reality? It is a question I could not have answered twelve years ago when I first became an educator. Today, though, because I had a deep passion for this work and great mentors and partners along the way, I do have some advice I can pass along:

  • First, it is essential to ensure that the leadership team at your institution is in agreement that inclusion of those with special needs is a priority for your community. There are times when this work will be challenging, and it will be important to have support.
  • If you do not have a background in Special Needs Education, as most of us do not, find good resources in your community. Find a member in your congregation who works with those with special needs that can serve as mentor, giving you background information, helping you interpret the reports parents might give you, offering trainings to your teachers. Look for resource organizations in your community. Where I live, for example, I turn to Milestone Autism Resources, an organization which focuses on educating and coaching for family members and professionals. Additionally, the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, an online portal from the URJ in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, can point you to mentor congregations in your area. Finally, with individual students, you can often talk with those who work with them in their secular school to learn about successful approaches.
  • When a parents come to you and asks if you can educate their child with special needs, answer, “Yes, and tell me as much as you can about your child so we can do our best to make this a success for him/her.” Yes, and is the only response that allows the conversation to continue.
  • Once you have as much information as possible, make sure your teacher and teen aides know how best to work with this particular student. I rarely give diagnosis information to teachers because every child is different, and I want them to get to know the student, not the diagnosis. Instead, we talk about behaviors, actions, and plans that will work.
  • Finally, it is crucial to keep the lines of communication open between all those involved, and to have frequent check-ins. Know that it is not always going to be perfect, and changes will need to be made along the way.

In improv, when you follow the rule of “Yes, and…” hilarity ensues, and you often find tears rolling down your cheeks from laughter. In Jewish education when you follow the rule of “Yes, and…” you will also find tears rolling down your cheeks – tears of joy and success, the tears I found myself shedding when I read the following email from one of our members:

As a parent to both a child who is typically developing and one with rather intense special needs, I see inclusion as an opportunity not just for my daughter with special needs but for the entire community. My daughter with special needs, Caroline, is a joy to be around until she isn’t. At times, her energy level and random screaming make it difficult for our family to participate in activities, like practicing religion. When we found Suburban Temple – Kol Ami, our family found a place where we could learn and grow spirituality, and where we could provide an opportunity for other members of the temple to practice acceptance and inclusion on a regular basis. Our family is accepted and not judged.

When Caroline gets agitated or excited during temple, instead of asking us to leave, we are offered toys to help occupy her so that we can continue to enjoy the service. To me, at the end of the day, I want both of my daughters to believe in themselves, be thankful for the gifts in their lives, and to help others whenever possible – joining Suburban Temple – Kol Ami reinforces those beliefs through weekly lessons and activities, but also by the way our family is treated by other members – with respect, kindness and an embracing spirit.

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.