The question we should ask is, “How can we NOT afford inclusion?” Given all the research, all the discussions, all the evidence; how can any Jewish institution afford to turn away a single person who wants to belong?
To be clear, when I use the word “afford” there is certainly a reference to finances. But it is essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means. When I say we can’t afford to turn anyone away, it’s because I believe, genuinely and wholeheartedly, that there is a place for every person in the Jewish community. So why is it that we have yet to make the shift from wondering how we, as synagogues, camps and Jewish institutions, can afford inclusion, to making inclusion a priority and FINDING the money?
I get it, trust me. I live in the real world of synagogue life….the world of declining membership, budget challenges and tough choices. But we need to think about what it means to be a part of a community that excludes. When we turn someone away, we lessen ourselves. That’s just not a risk any of us should be willing to take.
Alexis Kashar, a special education attorney in New York who happens to be deaf says it best, “When I am not in temple, my family of five is not in temple. The ripple effect is real.”
While there is no denying that some aspects of accommodating people with disabilities can carry hefty price tags, becoming an inclusive organization is not always expensive. Here are practical, inexpensive and realistic ways to make inclusion a reality for your organization:
The most significant barrier to inclusion is attitude; and changing attitudes is free.
It’s hard work. It takes genuine commitment. But it is free.
You can begin by being mindful and intentional in the way you speak. Help to change the way clergy, staff, teachers, madrichim (teen teaching assistants) and board members speak. Change the wording on your forms, website, and school and synagogue communications to be fully inclusive. Make this one deliberate change and then reflect on what this change has brought to your community.
Invest in professional development
This could be where you get the “biggest bang for your buck.” Most religious schools have a budget for professional development. A congregation can bring someone in to lead a full-day or a half-day workshop for teachers and madrichim. Include members of the clergy and board. Consider inviting parents or running a parallel learning track for parents and lay leaders. When everyone is invested, you reduce the possibility that anyone will consider inclusion “someone else’s issue.” You have the potential to move your community to a place of “this is who we are” and “this is what we do.” Maintain the learning with in-person or virtual check-in opportunities throughout the year.
Use your synagogue’s existing tools to promote inclusion.
As discussed above, you can make inclusion a synagogue-wide priority. Encourage clergy to offer sermons about the value of inclusion. Select texts to study together at weekly Torah study, in committee meetings or at special programs. Write about inclusion in your synagogue bulletin and highlight success stories in your monthly newsletter. Incorporate lessons on disability awareness, tolerance and acceptance in religious school classes, at youth group events and at board meetings.
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to desist from it” ~ Pirkei Avot: 2:16
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.