By: Lisa Friedman
Inclusion of individuals with disabilities in congregational life is being discussed more and more frequently. And while this is a good thing, it can also be a controversial concept that stirs up a lot of emotion. When done right, inclusion fosters belonging. It’s about more than the structures and facilities. A ramp is just a sloped sidewalk if those who need it aren’t able to fully participate in the life of your community. This may seem daunting and overwhelming for a community that has not previously made accommodations or offered inclusive programming for individuals with disabilities. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. My advice is to start small, but start somewhere.
Ten Steps to Begin to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive:
1. Identify the key stakeholders.
Inclusion of people with disabilities is not a one-person job. While a single individual 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/or the parent of a child with disabilities. It is essential to adhere to the adage, “nothing about us, without us”. Helping individuals to see their value to both the community and the inclusion effort is both welcoming and validating. It demonstrates that you are about far more than “lip service”.
2. Recognize that inclusion is about changing a culture.
Changing a culture 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. We are taught, kol yisrael areivim zeh lezeh (all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another) and “Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah—whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.”(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah) We must take our teachings to heart and use them to help everyone in our communities to recognize the value of inclusion.
3. Create a vision.
With your key group of stakeholders, develop your vision of inclusion. There are many tools available to guide an organization through the visioning process and most synagogues already have a Vision Statement and are familiar with the process. Ensure that your vision of inclusion is in line with your synagogue’s vision. Here is just one example: (name of synagogue) celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and welcomes diversity within our sacred community. We strive to ensure that all members of (name of synagogue) are able to participate meaningfully in all spiritual, educational, celebratory, and life event activities at the synagogue.
In Part 2 of this series I will explore practical goal setting as the next steps in helping to create an inclusive congregation.
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.