The Blessing of Inclusion is in Our Hands

Lisa Handelman, Community Disability Inclusion Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

Bringing the B'Yadenu Project to the Greater Washington Community

Child with picture symbol of Shabbat candlesThe Priestly Blessing, Birkat Kohanim, (Numbers 5:24-26) is aspirational: May God bless you and keep you. May God cause light to shine upon you and be gracious to you, May God turn towards you and grant you peace. 

From the biblical period and down to our own time, the ritual of bestowing this blessing, also known as Nesi’at Kapayim, the lifting of the hands, was meant to bless the entire community of Israel. Similarly, B’Yadenu, which means “in our hands,” strives towards the aspirational goal of including the full spectrum of diverse learners in all Jewish day schools.  The B’Yadenu Project seeks to enable this goal through training, providing resources, and by putting the responsibility to advance inclusion “in the hands” of individual schools and their local communities.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is committed to building a vibrant and welcoming Jewish community.  While we are blessed with Jewish day schools that strive to support students across the learning continuum, we acknowledge that we have not yet reached the goal of providing a quality Jewish education for every child.  With this aim in mind, we choose to partner with Gateways: Access to Jewish Education and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) to bring the B’Yadenu Project to our Greater Washington community.

What attracted us to the B’Yadenu Project was the integration of the parallel ideas of individuation and collaboration. Schools would work both on their own and in partnership with each other to build their capacity to serve more diverse learners, and would do so within a well-laid out process. Whether in a school setting, a congregation or an entire community, the journey to become more inclusive involves self-reflection.  It involves changing attitudes and overcoming stigma.  It involves taking risks and a willingness to do things differently.  It involves an unyielding belief that inclusion creates a stronger school, a stronger congregation, a stronger community. 

The first stage of the B’Yadenu Project required an intensive process of self-reflection.  Four of our community’s days schools agreed to participate.  The B’Yadenu Project toolkit provided guidance, but left the details rightfully “in the hands” of each individual school.  B’Yadenu offers a whole-school approach, and each of the schools created a leadership team that includes general educators, specials educators, teachers and administrators.  The needs of all students and the hopes and dreams of the parent body were considered as each school determined the type of professional development that would best meet their requirements. While the destination may be similar, each school’s path looks quite different. To facilitate the journey, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington provided the financial resources, and each school also agreed to contribute from their professional development funds.

Since the B’yadenu Project was placed “in the hands” of our community, we decided to add a broader collaborative dimension. We formed a Community of Practice (CoP) that includes representatives from each of the participating schools, community Jewish education inclusion specialists (from MATAN and Sulam), myself as Federation’s Community Inclusion Specialist and professionals from Gateways.  In much the same way that including diverse learners strengthens an individual school, having a Community of Practice that incorporates a wide range of ideas and experiences, strengthens our local B’Yadenu project.  

The Priestly Blessing is recited in many communities on all major holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Traditionally, clergy recite the blessing from under a tented prayer shawl with downcast eyes to blur the distinction between the kohanim and the congregation.  The entire community, regardless of rank, age, gender or ability is included.  Such a fully inclusive community is truly a blessing.   As we gather during this High Holiday season, let us continue in our efforts to create a more inclusive Jewish community. 

Lisa Handelman is the Community Disability Inclusion Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. If you are interested in learning more about The Jewish Federation’s disability inclusion resources and programs, visit shalomdc.org/disabilitiesandinclusion or email Lisa.Handelman@shalomdc.org   

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