Periodically we offer you glimpses into excellent and innovative inclusion programs from all corners of the Jewish community. Today I’m happy to bring you a post about a wonderful program run by Gateways, a Boston organization with which my family has been deeply involved since its inception.
It can be hard to get teen inclusion programs right, but we believe Mitzvah Mensches has done just that. I hope this inspires you to think about starting your own inclusive philanthropy and social action program—or tell us about the one you already have.
Mitzvah Mensches: Inclusive Social Action for Teens
By Nancy Mager, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education
Jewish Disability Awareness Month highlights the issue of inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. Here in Boston, Gateways has a teen youth initiative – Mitzvah Mensches – that strives to include teens with disabilities in meaningful Jewish extracurricular activities.
Mitzvah Mensches is an inclusive teen youth group fostering young philanthropists. We create a social life through social action. Teens join Mitzvah Mensches for a variety of reasons– but one thing is for sure: they all think it’s fun, they all feel like they belong, and they all have a voice that is heard and counted.
The overt curriculum at Mitzvah Mensches is about philanthropy and social action. Teens tell us what they are interested in and we find charities that are aligned with their interests. As a group, we learn about the charities in fun and creative ways. Sometimes, it looks like formal learning (reading and writing, or watching a video about an organization), but often we incorporate games and team challenges into the evening. The games have a secondary (covert) purpose: through them, we work on social skills and building relationships among the participants.
As an inclusive program, some of the Mensches have disabilities and others do not. A diagnosis or disability is not so important. What is important is that the teens make connections with one another. In the beginning of the year, the teens may feel they do not share interests or have much in common, but as the year progresses and the program creates unique shared experiences, the teens bond and have things to talk about. Eventually those connections grow stronger and friendships are forged.
Now in its eighth year, the group meets twice a month during the school year and includes students with and without disabilities.
So, while wonderful activities, posts and celebrations of awareness carry on during Jewish Disability Awareness Month, the teens of Mitzvah Mensches will be celebrating a slightly different agenda: acceptance, individuality, and inclusion of all.
Nancy Mager is the Director of Jewish Education Programs at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.