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We love blog posts that boast how you can “Change Your Life in 5 Easy Steps” or ones that offer us “10 Steps for Finding Happiness.” And as a regular blogger, I have written a handful of articles offering concrete, practical advice such as Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make and Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive.
But I’d be lying if I said that you’d be all set if you just read and followed the advice in one of these articles. Even if I told you the exact steps that my congregation followed, you can’t just wrap our process up with a bow, plunk it down into your community and say, “Ok, now we are inclusive.”
Why not? Because becoming an inclusive community is a process. It is a deliberate and intentional transformation. It is a work in progress. Inclusion is a funny thing, really. When it is “done right”, it’s not something to talk about. It just is. When a community is inclusive, anyone who wants to participate can, to whatever extent he or she desires. Period. There’s no need for fanfare, no self-congratulatory pats on the back and no reason to advertise your accomplishments, because you are just a community doing what a community should do; welcoming everyone.
But inclusion, particularly inclusion of people with disabilities, is not always happening in the Jewish world; at least not naturally, comfortably and universally. And so, I will share one piece of solid, tried & true advice that I believe has been the single most powerful secret to the success of my congregation. Say yes.
Say yes because far too many have said no. Far too many still say no. Some “get around” to yes with a lot of pushing and prodding, but that can leave everyone involved with lingering frustrations and a sense of wariness.
When you say, “Yes, I can meet your needs…please help me to understand how to do that,” you will build trust and enable your constituents to recognize that everyone is on the same team. I am not suggesting that every request and potential accommodation can and will be met with “yes”, but by opening the door you can set the stage for honest and trusting dialogues. It means that when something truly is not possible, there can be a calm and realistic conversation.
We are well into that time in the Jewish year where congregations dust off their brochures and ramp up their advertising. There is talk of “reaching the unaffiliated” alongside plans for membership drives, promotions and open houses. In my opinion, far too many congregations promote themselves as “warm, welcoming and inclusive.” Too often these are just the right words to put on brochures and websites. What separates congregations who are genuinely inclusive from those who say they are is their ability to say yes and mean it. These are the communities who recognize that inclusion isn’t a committee, that inclusion isn’t a program and that inclusion isn’t a classroom in the school.
The congregations that do it right recognize that inclusion defines them, that it is part of who they are. Someday (hopefully) inclusion will just be. Until then…
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She is also the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan Inc. Lisa consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.