photo of Michelle Alkon

Taking the Next Step into Inclusion

by Michelle S. Alkon, President (Former), Gateways Board of Trustees

Inclusion Is in Our Hands

Jewish Disability Awareness Acceptance and Inclusion Month logo

This 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.”