When Jody Robie attended her first Inclusion Committee meeting at Temple Beth Elohim (TBE), she expected to see the faces of other parents whose children, like her daughter Jordan, have special needs. Instead, she says she was surprised by “the diversity of our group, with folks coming from all different perspectives.”
While including people of all abilities at every level of synagogue life has long been a priority at TBE, their efforts have recently gotten a welcome boost from the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP). The project is a collaboration between CJP, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Greater Boston synagogues, and offers grant funding and expertise to help congregations develop inclusive programs and educational initiatives.
The opportunities that come with the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Programs are equally diverse, Robie says, especially in terms of social accessibility for people living with a number of disabilities. The program is encouraging Temple Beth Elohim to understand “accessibility” in ways that go beyond providing large-print prayer books or wheelchair-accessible doors, ramps, and elevators.
Providing aids or helpers for students like Jordan, strategizing ways to highlight the gifts of synagogue members living with disabilities, and educating the congregation about the broader definition of inclusion are all part of “peeling back the onion of what we do,” says Robie. “We do so many things well here already, that I feel really privileged that we’re still given the opportunity to have this grant to fill in some of those gaps,” she says.
Great Teachers Include Every Student
Jordan first attended Hebrew school in the 2nd grade. “We figured we’d get maybe a year or two of Hebrew school before it got too advanced,” says Robie, “but here we are in 5th grade, fully included, working on pre-bat mitzvah information, materials, and training. She has her bat mitzvah date in May 2017.”
Since Jordan started attending religious school at the Reform congregation in the 2nd grade, her teachers have worked closely with the family to help her learn and include her in all aspects of the classroom experience. One teacher provided a separate copy of storybooks so Jordan could follow along from her seat while the teacher read aloud. Another teacher drew on his special education background to “pre-teach” complicated concepts to Jordan so she could participate successfully in group lessons.
“Each year we’ve had different educators who have had their own spin on what would be best,” says Robie, and at each step along the way, Jordan and her family have been supported, included and valued—like every other member of the Beth Elohim congregation.
Jordan’s experiences will become a valuable part of a major database of ideas, projects, and approaches RSIP is compiling to share the best practices with other congregations that want to improve their inclusiveness. Among the lessons learned is that the entire community—not only those individuals who have special needs—benefits from a congregation that prioritizes inclusion.
RSIP: Putting Funding in the Community’s Hands
If RSIP seems broad in its reach, it’s by design, says Betsy Closs, CJP’s senior director for vulnerable populations. “What we’re trying to do is build awareness to highlight the idea that [inclusion] is a central activity of Jewish life,” she says.
Robie particularly appreciates the grant’s openness to allowing Temple Beth Elohim to develop programs that work to include its specific members.
Jordan has a mild brain condition that impacts her intellectually and socially. “Having a child without a very specific diagnosis, like autism or Down syndrome, often we miss out on some of the funding or programs that address those issues,” she says. “I really am pleased that this grant is allowing the community to figure out the best use of the funding.”
After all, she says, inclusion is a bigger idea than any single diagnosis or disability, and it’s about participating in every aspect of synagogue life, not just doing individual programs that highlight specific issues or conditions.
“From my perspective, inclusion means not just being tolerated or accepted, but really being part of a community and being part of what’s great about an organization,” she says.