My son Nathaniel was a person who never could take “no” for an answer. It wasn’t that he never listened or misbehaved to get his way. He just was a believer that anything in life is possible and therefore could never accept the word no. “Say ‘maybe’ Mommy, not ‘No.’ Just maybe you could change your mind.” He always held out hope for change even if he heard the word ”no.”
I learned much from Nathaniel and his too short life, and I have found that with each passing day I have become more like him, I too have trouble accepting the word “no” and look for the “yeses” and “maybes” in life.
Throughout Nathaniel’s lifetime I heard more “no’s” than I care to remember. “No” to a Jewish Day school education (from every religious denomination.) “No” to a mainstream summer Jewish camp experience. “No” to creating accessible programming in my synagogue. I always believed in Nathaniel’s right to be a part of all of these Jewish institutions despite his muscular dystrophy, so my husband and I kept trying to find our way in and, despite many rejections, Nathaniel ultimately got to be part of the greater Jewish community through its schools, camps and synagogues.
Not only was Nathaniel a part of these institutions, he added greatly to the spirit of these places. At both his eighth grade and high school graduations he received standing ovations from both faculty and classmates alike. At camp, he not only became a camper but ultimately was put on Sport staff even as he became a quadriplegic – his mouth worked and he could use a whistle to referee the games.
The truth is wherever Nathaniel went he was cherished by all who knew him. So the question remains – why was the first response to Nathaniel’s being included in our Jewish institutions always “No.” I place the reason somewhere between fear and ignorance. At the time Rabbis, Principals, and Camp Directors just didn’t know how to see the possibilities. They were overwhelmed with the thoughts of dealing with someone who fell outside the norm with which they were used to dealing.
That was sixteen years ago and things have improved. Now almost every Orthodox summer overnight camp has an inclusion program for children with disabilities and camps run by other denominations do as well. But schools and synagogues still seem to be struggling with the concept of inclusion. It is for this reason that I have created The Jewish Inclusion Project, with the help of a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation. The prefix “in” in the word “inclusion,” sounds so easy to do – come to me and I will let you in. But the reality is that inclusion is a very proactive process.
One has to proactively include people with disabilities. A person with visual impairment won’t think of praying in your synagogue if they don’t know that a Braille or large print prayer book is readily available from which they can pray. A family that has a member with Tourette syndrome won’t feel comfortable going to a prayer service unless they know the Rabbi and community value people with differences, even if those differences are occasionally disruptive. The Jewish Inclusion Project teaches rabbinical students and Jewish leadership how to create proactively inclusive Jewish environments in synagogues, schools, camps and Jewish organizations. Through Jewish learning, role playing, lectures and panels, TJIP teaches our future and present leaders how to proactively create communities that are inclusive of people with disabilities so that every Jew has a place at the table.
In time, I hope to prove Nathaniel correct, and see to it that there are no “no’s,” only “maybes” that can turn into an enthusiastic “YES!”
Shelley Richman Cohen is the Founder and Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, which educates rabbinical students, Rabbis and communal leaders on the obligation, need and methodology for leading the creation of more inclusive synagogues, schools, summer camps and community organizations that fully embrace the communal, social and religious needs of people with disabilities and their families. The Jewish Inclusion Project is funded in part by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation.