Setting The Tone

Shelly ChristensenBy: Shelly Christensen

I’m gonna add some bottom
So that the dancers just won’t hide
“Dance to the Music” by Sylvester Stewart

In 1968 Sly and the Family Stone released the single “Dance to the Music.” This relatively unknown band brought rock guitar riffs, gospel-style organ playing, horns, scat style vocalization, improvisation and a steady bassline together to form an infectious tune urging people to “get on up…and dance to the music!”

The song is an iconic example of late sixties music that endures into the 21st century as a call to action anthem. The lyrics and the steady beat of the bassline provide the foundation; many different voices come together to create something that wasn’t there before.

In Jewish communal life, Torah provides our baseline (not our bassline). It is the constant steady reference point from which we launch our actions.

The Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion (JLIDI) is adding some bottom to the baseline of Jewish communal services that support people with disabilities. This baseline ensures that no one with a disability has to hide or feel invisible anymore.

In addition to providing a four-day intensive immersion experience designed to guide participants to discover their own leadership strengths and qualities, we mentor our graduates after they return home. We continue to provide support and guidance so they can establish the foundational changes required to establish a culture that ensures that people with disabilities maintain positive control over their own lives.

The JLIDI baseline acknowledges the practices of the past as stepping stones toward living a life of greater self-determination. Our graduates step back into their work with the knowledge, skills and understanding that the practice of segregating people with disabilities into “special” programs and groups under the auspices of a Jewish institution is not inclusion. 2013 graduate Adynna Swarz of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles returned from the JLIDI understanding that “our goal is not to segregate people with disabilities. We want people with disabilities to be part of the regular synagogue service!”

2013 Jewish Leadership Institute participants

2013 Jewish Leadership Institute participants

Adynna Swarz changed the RFP process to include a specific question on how the culture of the applicant supports people with disabilities to achieve meaningful participation. One precise change now puts inclusion of people with disabilities on the agenda of every applicant.

Another graduate, Jodi Newmark, directs the Jewish Child and Family Services Supported Community Living Initiative. Agencies tended to support adults with disabilities, Jodi realized, in silos rather than coordinating opportunities and services. Jodi initiated changes that ensure that adults with disabilities have the same range of options as anyone else in the community.

The Young Leadership Division (YLD) of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago provides myriad opportunities for people to engage in Jewish life. Jodi spoke with them about including the adults she supports. The Federation’s response was: Why don’t they just come? Jodi was thrilled with this response as it allows adults with disabilities to self-select how they wish to participate. Jodi noted that in addition to opening peoples’ eyes about participation by young adults with disabilities in community organizations, relationships between peers with disabilities and those without disabilities have started to bloom.

Adynna and Jodi represent a few of the 24 voices who joined together at the 2013 Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. They are laying down the baseline so that all the voices can be heard and appreciated for their uniqueness.

The mission of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion (JLIDI) is to provide leadership training and support to prepare participants to promote and support inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of community and Jewish life. The JLIDI is accepting applications for the 2014 Institute, November 16-20, 2014. Applicants should have a strong interest in ensuring that people with disabilities and their families are included in the life of the Jewish community. Applicants should be able to exercise influence to shepherd the full and meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities in the services offered and the opportunities for participation in their organizations. Participation in the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion is particularly appropriate for leaders and staff of Jewish Family Service agencies, Jewish Federations, Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, synagogues, Jewish movements, and Jewish Residential and Day Camps.

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