Gateways NewsBlog Feed

Dispelling the Darkness

By Tamar Davis
December 11, 2020

One of the things I love about Hanukkah is how we add to the number of candles we light each night. Seeing the aura of light grow stronger and stronger as it dispels the darkness around us fills me with hope. During this Hanukkah season, when so many of us are celebrating apart from family and friends, it is especially important to remember how powerful each candle can be in dispelling loneliness and fear. We are each lights in our community, and when we take a moment and reach out to others who might be alone or struggling, we become even stronger.

At Gateways, we are working to amplify that light—to extend our hands to our community in a time of disconnection. For example, when we decided to "go remote" for our Sunday and B'nei Mitzvah programs, we stayed in touch with the families of students who have more trouble accessing our program online, sending them messages and Hanukkah gifts.

This is why I quoted Rav Soloveitchik in my remarks at Sweet Sounds (see the video above!), and why I say it again now: "It is a privilege and a pleasure to belong to such a prayerful, charitable, teaching community, which feels the breath of eternity."

May the light of Hanukkah continue to spark hope and connection within our community, especially during this time.

Shabbat shalom and Chag Hanukkah sameach.

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: hanukkah

 

Thanking Before We Think

By Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer
December 4, 2020

Dear Friends,

I hope you had a lovely and restful Thanksgiving, even if it felt very different than years past! In the spirit of Thanksgiving and my message last week when I reflected on the insight of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l that, in Judaism, “we thank before we think,” I want to dedicate this space to the purpose of thanking the hundreds of you who joined me at Gateways’ first-ever virtual Sweet Sounds. And most especially, I want to thank each student, volunteer, donor, lay leader, educator, and staff member who helped make this event possible. I can’t begin to tell you what a herculean task it was to put together a program that showed the breadth and depth of what Gateways does in a way that was personal and meaningful, and to somehow convey all this through your computer screen.

We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and responses to every part of virtual Sweet Sounds, from moving video submissions, to generous donations, to enthusiastic offers to host our mini "Sweet Salons."

After watching Sweet Sounds, one long-time supporter wrote me a note saying, “We were just blown away by tonight’s virtual Sweet Sounds. We have been going live to the event for many years. This was so very special. I have to admit I cried through most of it!” And another new supporter wrote, “This was a wonderfully put together program and very inspirational. Your teachers and volunteers show such dedication and personal involvement and those receiving the benefits are so proud of their own accomplishments. Thank you for the opportunity to watch and be educated about this great organization.”

There is no adequate way to truly express our gratitude. Normally, the name of every person who helped make Sweet Sounds possible would have been listed in a printed program that we distribute in person at the event. Since we couldn’t do that, we wanted to list those names here. I hope you’ll take a moment to read these names, as each of these people has helped ensure that Gateways can remain steadfast in our mission, no matter what challenges come our way.

May you each continue to go mechayil el chayil – from strength to strength.

Todah rabah and Shabbat shalom,

Tamar Davis
Chief Executive Officer

P.S. While Sweet Sounds 2020 is now behind us, if you haven’t sent in your gift yet, you can still do so here!

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

 

Speaking Publicly About My Disability

By Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer
August 21, 2020

 
Dear Friends,

It was overwhelming and heartening to see how many of you took time to watch my first video message two weeks ago—and thank you for welcoming me so warmly to my new role as CEO of Gateways. In my desire to get to know you and continue the imperative communal conversation about inclusion on behalf of all our children, I plan to use this space on two Fridays each month to share various thoughts, learning moments, and Gateways highlights with you.

It may seem logical that—considering the job I just took on (finishing my third week today!)—I would naturally feel comfortable talking about my own personal disability, and my experiences of advocating for myself in the Jewish community and beyond. However, this was most definitely not the case until well into adulthood. That first occasion where I spoke publicly about my personal journey of navigating our world with severe hearing loss was a life-defining moment that led me to where I am today at Gateways.

It was in 2011 when I was asked to speak one Shabbat afternoon as part of a “getting to know your neighbor” speaker series at my synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I was living at the time. I entitled my speech, “To Hear or Not to Hear: What Was the Question?” What still amazes me most about that first time was the sheer number of people who attended that afternoon. Typically, about 100 people came to synagogue on Shabbat afternoons, but the day I spoke, over 300 people showed up. Afterwards, there were three main themes to people’s responses to me: many gained new insight on what it means to live with a disability, others were inspired (but not necessarily to action), and some even expressed how they didn’t feel comfortable talking about their own or a family member’s disability.

This experience was incredibly enlightening for me. I grew to understand that while we all want our communities and schools to be inclusive, all too often, we don’t realize how inherently non-inclusive our communities are until we hear a first-hand account of what a person with a disability is experiencing. I know now that my personal story is bigger than just me, and it needs to be told as part of the movement for inclusion in our society. 

From then on, I always said yes whenever I was asked to speak at other synagogues and with community leaders from my perspective as a person with a disability. In addition, I adapted my talk to include actionable insights, and to share practical steps on how a community can become more inclusive to all who want to access Jewish life.

I never dreamed that I would be adapting my talk to share a new perspective when I became a parent of a child with a disability (different from mine). And I certainly never dreamed that I would become the leader of an organization with a mission to advocate for inclusion for all of our community’s children, regardless of disability or diverse learning needs. How appropriate that in this week’s Torah portion reads the famed verse, “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף” (Tzedek tzedek tirdof), “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). What a clear call to action that we cannot desist in our efforts to create and sustain a just world, a world where every child has equal access to what they need to grow and thrive.

I meant every word I said in my video message, and I’ll say it again here: I want to hear from you, understand your thoughts about inclusion, and learn how Gateways can continue being a beacon of hope for our children in their path to becoming meaningful participants in Jewish life and learning. I always welcome your responses.

Wishing you continued good health and Shabbat shalom,

Tamar

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

 

We all lead. We all follow.

By Holden and Stuart Karon
April 3, 2019

Holden Karon:

In my Torah portion, Aaron and his sons are getting ready to become priests.  Aaron and his sons stay in the Tent of Meeting that was used as a temBoy and male and female teen tutors stand at makeshift bimah with iPadple.  They should not leave the tent while they are getting ready to become priests.  Aaron and his sons stay in the tent for seven days.  

While Aaron and his sons are in the tent, they prayed.  They also apologized for things they had done wrong in the past.  Aaron and his sons only left the tent when they were ready to become priests. 

Priests are leaders.  Priests lead by comforting people.  They can also be leaders by helping people do mitzvot.  I can be a leader, too.  I can be a leader by helping other people.  I can also be a leader by being kind.  Now that I am a Bar-Mitzvah, I look forward to being a leader in the Jewish community.

 

Stuart Karon:

Gateways is a Hebrew school for kids who don’t learn in typical ways. My son, Holden, has been learning at Gateways since we moved to Boston six years ago. In preparation for his bar mitzvah, they sent home a pictorial version of his parsha (Tzav). It’s the first time I’ve seen an abbreviated, kid-friendly story provide more plot and detail than the original, unless you’re looking to brush up on the finer points of animal and grain sacrifices.

In the parsha, Aaron and his sons go into a tent for seven days to prepare to be Jewish leaders. Gateways has been Holden’s tent. They have kids for 90 minutes each Sunday. It took years but this past weekend, Holden finally worked up enough hours to equal one full week in the tent. Three young brothers standing in synagogue with Torah spread in front of them

In his d’var, Holden speaks of being a leader. He won’t run a country, a company or even a committee. He may never hold a job. So how can he be a leader? Jodi and I wouldn’t be here this morning if not for Holden. Holden likes coming to shul, and so Jodi and I have become Shabbat regulars.

The parsha doesn’t give much detail of what Aaron and his sons do in the tent. When we pick up Holden from Gateways, we don’t get a lot of detail about what they did. And like a typical teen, Holden doesn’t tell us much.

Holden is not a detail-oriented kid, but enough details have stuck to give him a general appreciation and enjoyment of Jewish ritual. For him, rituals may be more fun than serious. He lights up when the ark opens and he sees a Torah. He covers his eyes for the Shema and peeks through fingers with a grin as the rest of us recite the prayer.

Enthusiasm inspires others. Holden starts clapping before the pace of the song picks up and the cantor and rabbis encourage us all to clap. If he spies the table with the challah and wine rolling up the ramp, he leads the way to the bima before one of the rabbis calls kids up at the end of the service. We’ve been wondering if he’ll still be welcome to join the kids on the bima now that he’s officially an adult. I’m not sure anyone will be able to dissuade him.

Holden leads in subtle ways, too. We used to live in Vermont. Holden led us to Boston in search of better schools for him. He led Jodi to our synagogue’s inclusion committee. He leads me to the T, as in MBTA. Every time we drive through Newton Center, Holden says “trains” with his iPad, and points and looks eagerly toward Station Street. Luckily the T hasn’t imposed fare hikes for standing on the platform, at least not at our favorite stop where you can see trains come and go for nearly a mile. I may not be as excited by the trains as he is, but an hour under the Station Diner with no agenda offers a break from routine, not unlike being at our synagogue for Shabbat. We should all find such breaks in our busy weeks. If any of you are interested, Holden would be happy to share the platform and show you how exciting trainspotting can be.

Our fellow congregants have heard some of Holden’s iPad-based siddur, and they will hear more. Many people have contributed to his voice. The recordings come from volunteers who work with Holden at Gateways, sit with him at services and live with him. Holden and others like him may not find solutions to global warming or income inequality, but they inspire many people to help others.

We’re surrounded by efforts to include everyone in Jewish life. The ramp up to the bimah, the sound system and wireless hearing-assist devices, the kids’ books and fidget toys that work for adults, too. Our congregation has three rabbis with very different styles, and we have many teens and professionals who make Gateways happen.

Holden may need more help and guidance than a typical person, but we all rely on others. None of us would do too well if we had to produce all our own food, build our own shelter and fabricate all our own clothes using only materials and tools we find or make. Some of us write useful software using tools others wrote to do so. Some of us provide medical, spiritual and legal care, while at times needing a little, too. Some of us cut hair, drive trains and prepare our temple’s hall for the lovely kiddush we enjoy after services. We help and we need help.

Aaron and his sons went to the tent so that they could help others participate in Jewish life. Aaron and his sons wouldn’t have had much to do or to eat if no one had brought sacrifices to the altar.

On his bar mitzvah day, Holden is manning the altar. Consider bringing a goat or sheep as an offering. He’d be thrilled. He’d keep it as a pet instead of sending it up in smoke, but that should be preferable at a Conservative congregation. If a ram or goat from your flock is too much, a friendly “hello” or smile will do.

Including everyone in Jewish life and other aspects of our daily ritual can mean having conversations that don’t come naturally to us. It takes a little effort, but we can all find ways to talk to people like Holden, who can’t speak, and to those who may be independent and typical, but don’t have people with whom to speak. Say “hello”, smile and ask a question that’s outside the routine.

With Holden, keep it simple. Ask if he’s seen any good trains lately. Tell him you saw a big plane fly overhead as you came to shul or that a fire truck passed by your house recently. You’re sure to get a smile, and you’ll have made him and whoever is with him, usually Jodi or me, feel a little more welcome. Then try it with someone else. Let Holden lead us all to make community gatherings a little more friendly.

Category: Profiles

 

Taking the Next Step Into Inclusion

By Michelle S. Alkon, President, Gateways Board of Trustees
February 13, 2019

Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month logo 2019This year, during February, my synagogue, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA is observing Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month by highlighting different aspects of awareness, acceptance and inclusion through the words of our temple community members.

I recently had the following conversation with one of our members:

“We have come such a long way in including children with differences into the religious school,” she told me. “When my son went to Hebrew school here years back, they taught him in a substantially separate class.” She went on to note the elegance of our Shacharit program in which individual learning styles are accommodated for all children in an integrated program of small group Hebrew learning. However, she also wondered if things had really changed.

When her son was in middle school, all the kids were celebrating their b’nei mitzvah.  Every week, there were ceremonies and parties to which this child was not invited. He wondered why. He had gone to Hebrew school with these children for years. He thought they were friends. She explained to him that b’nei mitzvah were very special occasions and that children invited only their closest friends. Since he had very few children coming to his bar mitzvah, this made sense.

The congregant was the parent of twin boys. Although the boys were not close friends with her son, and attended a different middle school, they had gone to Hebrew school at Temple Shalom together. When the invitation came addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.,” she RSVP’d that the whole family would come. Her friend called and told her that her son was not invited: he might detract somehow from the lovely day she envisioned. My friend found this difficult to understand, since there were over 60 kids invited, and she and her husband would be there should an (unlikely) issue have arisen.  He did not attend. And although nearly 10 years had passed, tears of bitterness pooled in the corners of her eyes. 

We wondered if this would still happen now. Do families think of including a child with disabilities outside of organized synagogue events? Do the adults with chronic medical or mental illness or physical challenges get invited to home Seders or only to the community event? Has inclusion and acceptance become the norm? 

The Torah tells us "וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל- Do not put a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). We get this, right? We are informed, decent and well-meaning people: We do not purposely exclude anyone. We recognize that our diverse and inclusive community is a better, richer, more interesting place. During this Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month, can we look at ourselves and our lives to consider how we can integrate awareness, incorporate inclusion and demonstrate acceptance?

To make this happen, we need to take a “yes and…” approach. For example, if you are a parent of an upcoming bar or bat mitzvah, ask your child if there is anyone in the class who might want to celebrate with them who was not first on the list. Call the religious school to ask the Director of Inclusion or other religious school staff the same question. 

Then follow up your invitation to the family with a phone call asking what you can do as the host to make the day successful for this young guest. Offer to welcome a parent or aide in the invitation if it would make the child feel more comfortable.

Remember that just as you did not know these families, they might not know you; they may not have not been part of regular playdates and organized athletics that are so much a part of the social world of our children. A welcoming introduction from you will go a long way toward increasing everyone’s comfort in a new situation. 

The same principle applies to forging new levels of relationships with adults. Make the invitation: for dinner, for a holiday celebration or party, and make the call. “Is there anything we can do to make this easier for you?” You might ask about access or food sensitivities, or pronoun preferences or whether they need help with transportation. I have a friend who takes a municipally-offered ride service, but it is unreliable; so I arranged a private disability van and paid for it, so that he wouldn’t have to worry about that as well. If you are reaching out to someone with a physical or mental illness, acknowledge they have been struggling. If they decline your invitation because it is just too much for them, offer something more one-to-one at another time.

There is a lot of information out there about how to make a person with a disability more welcome: using the right language, respecting their space and accommodations and evening the playing field. I urge you to take advantage of the resources offered through the URJ and in Massachusetts through the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project. However, I have found a lot of the focus has been institutional, meaning, “How do we make our synagogues more inclusive,” rather than personal. It is important to make sure that people with disabilities have a place in our synagogues and schools.  But as Rabbi Lynne Landsberg has said, “We don’t welcome people with disabilities because they have disabilities; we welcome them because they are people.” It isn’t up to our institutions; we as individuals have to make the effort. 

And, by the way, it is not only individuals with disabilities who benefit. Inclusion benefits everyone.  People talk about universal design, the concept that changes made to accommodate a specific individual actually provide a more general benefit. The example often used is the sidewalk cutout, which was developed so people in wheelchairs could navigate city streets, but was actually appreciated by baby carriage pushers and people with wheelie luggage. Or the automatic door button, which can be used by someone with mobility issues or someone else with arms full of groceries. We are certainly incorporating elements of universal access in our designs for our temple renovation. Our bimah will be accessible for people who are mobility impaired, but also for grandparents. We will have an all gender bathroom that can be used by transgender congregants and as a companion bath for fathers with daughters or mothers with sons.  

But I’m talking about going beyond that. I’m talking about changing environments generally, rather than focusing on the individual and asking them to make the change. Friends of ours have a young son with autism who goes to a Jewish camp. He is incredibly slow moving. The words “hurry up” just don’t mean anything; neurologically, he needs to process, and it takes as long as it takes.  As you can imagine, this made him very unpopular with his bunkmates. During his first summer, everyone tried interventions to speed him up; but he was always the last one. He was very sad because he always had to go to activities all by himself. His second summer, the counselor made an announcement to the bunk on the first day: “Before you leave the cabin, look to see if anyone else is still getting ready.  If someone is still here, please wait and walk with him.”  No mention of a particular individual, no adult accommodation, and guess what? The kids just did it, AND every kid benefitted because, really, who likes to be left behind? Thinking outside the box about inclusive environments benefits everyone.

One thing you can easily do is get educated. We often find that programming around inclusion of people with disabilities or mental illness draws only attendees who “have skin in the game.”  Honestly, we all have a stake in this, and we will all benefit from increased awareness. There are a lot of learning opportunities offered in the Jewish community. 

I also urge you to be mindful and intentional about inclusion, not just opportunistic. Yes, you should greet someone at oneg, AND you could ask them something about themselves AND THEN, you could invite them for coffee. If you are planning an event, reach out to make sure it is inclusive, AND issue specific invitations to people who might be reluctant to attend.

It might seem like I’m asking you to do a lot of work. It’s not, really. Sometimes, an item feels like a burden when it is on your to-do list; but is a pleasant activity when it is executed. The personal and communal gain from making these kinds of efforts more than balances any uncertainty or discomfort in their undertaking. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO and President of RespectAbility, notes that, “The Jewish community overall can pivot from a mindset of doing things ‘FOR’ people with disabilities to doing things ‘WITH’ Jews with disabilities.”

The Jewish community is enriched by different perspectives and energized by the sharing of diverse experiences. Rabbi David Saperstein, former Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism teaches, “We are taught in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, ‘Do not separate yourself from the community.’ The converse is equally compelling: We must prevent anyone from being separated against his or her will.”

 

Author Bio:

Michelle Alkon is the President of the board of directors at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.  She is also a board member at Temple Shalom of Newton, where she chairs the Disability Inclusion Task Force.  She recently retired as Director of Adult Family Support at the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE), where she worked with adults with Autism and related conditions and their families on a variety of issues including understanding how their disability might impact their lives as they approach relationships, work and independent living.   She is a frequent speaker at conferences for parents and professionals and has contributed to publications including the Autism Consortium’s guide, Transitioning Teens with Autisms Spectrum Disorders and the anthology, Voices of Autism.  Michelle has a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, where she learned a lot, and is the parent of two children with autism, from whom she learned even more.

 

Category: Op Ed, Inclusion Profiles, Synagogue Inclusion

Tagged under: Synagogue Inclusion, Inclusion