One of the greatest mistakes I have seen congregations make is to bring together an amazing group of committed lay leaders and professionals who meet frequently to develop a vision and goals and then create a plan to bring to the community at large. Yet, despite all good intentions, there is only a small group of people who are “in the know”. This lack of transparency frequently dooms an initiative before it ever gets off the ground.
So Step 7 in my “10 Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive” is:
Let the congregation know about your efforts. Changing a culture requires transparency and support; keeping your work a “secret” until a program or an event is “ready” can be a mistake. Inclusion is not about an isolated program, it is about relationships. Invite others into your conversations.
Steps 8, 9 & 10: Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Ok, not quite. But the idea is to put your goals into action, build in the opportunity for assessment and reflection, and then do it all again.
When I was hired thirteen years ago by a Reform congregation in NJ, there were a handful of children in the religious school whose needs were not being met. The desire was there to ensure that their experience would be as meaningful as anyone else’s. And so I was invited to help design a program that would best meet their needs and the needs of the community. Significantly, even from the beginning, my role was not to help teachers figure out what to do with the kids who were “ruining” classes for other students. The concept was that everyone had a right to a Jewish education and we were going to figure out how to offer it.
I believe that this attitude, which is shared by the professionals, lay leaders and synagogue membership, has helped us to consistently meet our inclusive goals. Our school program offers a variety of options for students and we do offer pull-out classes, a concept that is sometimes criticized by advocates of inclusion. What we have learned, however, is that there are some students in our community who need this level of individual attention in order to be successfully included in the life of the congregation.
For us, our work within the school has led us to explore ways to make worship and other aspects of synagogue life more inclusive. This is a work in progress for all of us. We consistently learn from our efforts, reflect and evolve, finding the right options for everyone in our community.
As recent studies demonstrate a changing Jewish demographic in America and research illustrates that individuals with disabilities are turned away from synagogues, religious schools and other organizational programs; saying “yes” is a significant step toward inclusion. Keep at it. Inclusion requires intentionality, dedication and perseverance. It is hard work, but it is work that is important, meaningful and satisfying.
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.