by Meredith Polsky
As the month of February continues, so, too, does Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (#JDAIM18). For those of us in the field of Jewish Inclusion, this is our hectic time of year – like tax season for accountants. We’re busier than usual raising awareness, promoting programs, celebrating inclusive Jewish organizations, and, overall, helping the entire Jewish community understand how (and why) to implement successful and meaningful inclusion.
We know that 1 in 5 people have some form of disability. 1 in 68 individuals is diagnosed with Autism and 1 million children in the US are Jewish; minimally, 200,000 school-aged Jewish children grapple with disabilities. We also know that an individual with special needs has a profound effect on how the entire family is (or is not) included in Jewish life.
Imagine the drastic repercussions when Jewish parents are told – again and again – that their child cannot be served in Jewish preschool or religious school, or that there is not a place for their child (and therefore their family) in the Shabbat service, or the teen youth group, or any number of opportunities that are afforded to families with more “typically-developing” children.
Many years ago, a Matan board member explained how having a Jewish child with Autism felt to her family. “It’s like having our noses pressed up against the window of a beautiful restaurant, but never being able to walk through the door.”
I never forgot that, and all these years later this notion of creating opportunities for meaningful inclusion guides my work daily.
For families, the path to finding the right Jewish education and involvement for your child and your family is not always easy. You might meet people along the way who don’t yet understand how your family’s participation will make their community stronger, and how your child’s individual gifts will create a more vibrant Jewish education for everyone. But you will also meet people who renew your faith, strengthen your resolve, and accompany you on your journey. Forging partnerships with the latter will have ripple effects that not only benefit your family, but the entire Jewish community.
Jewish institutions – schools, synagogues and even larger “umbrella” organizations – often tell me that inclusion feels overwhelming; that there are so many different aspects to consider, such a wide range of possibilities, so many variations on where to begin. They feel they can’t do everything, so they sometimes become stuck and don’t do anything.
I understand that feeling.
Certainly, though, as a Jewish community, we cannot afford to exclude 1 in 5 families from the fabric of Jewish life.
So what do we do?
We take the first step. Ask yourself what feels like a manageable place to begin. Maybe it’s having signage around your building that makes navigating the space easier; or a clergy member talking about inclusion from the pulpit. Perhaps it’s inviting an outside speaker to help open the conversation at your synagogue, religious school, youth group or day school; or perhaps you create an inclusion committee. Sometimes that first step is as simple as asking questions, encouraging open, honest communication – and actively listening to the answers. Remember that parents are the experts on their child. Don’t make assumptions: families with children with special needs are told “no” so often in their lives, they truly don’t know that you want to be inclusive unless you show them and tell them.
Say yes. Parents don’t expect you to have all the answers right from the start. Say yes instead of being yet another no in their lives. And then show families that you mean it. Communication is as much about the words you say as the environment you foster. Consider having a clearly marked and easy to find “quiet room” in your building where people can go when they feel overstimulated and need a break. Create a basket of fidget tools for your sanctuary or your classrooms, with an explanation of why it’s there and how to use it. Be sure your libraries include books that have characters with varying abilities (Matan is giving away a set of our favorites this month!), and that toys/materials in your classrooms or Shabbat babysitting rooms represent the wide gamut of people created in God’s image.
Examine your own marketing materials and literature about your Jewish organization. Do you have an inclusion statement? Is it easy to find? Do your programming fliers, bulletins, announcements and other means of outreach display verbiage related to inclusion? All of these things will “pop out” to families with a child with special needs; they are not used to experiencing these efforts towards inclusion, and you may be the difference for them between connecting to Jewish life and turning away from it.
We can easily be deceived into thinking that inclusion creates a better Jewish experience for individuals with special needs. Look again, though, and we begin to understand that inclusion benefits everyone. Indeed, our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.
Meredith Polsky is National Director of Institutes and Training at Matan and Developmental Support Coordinator at Temple Beth Ami Nursery School in Rockville, MD and is a 2017 Covenant Award Recipient