Our series of articles for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month concludes with this story from Jennifer Phillips about the support and work that is done by the Pritzker Pucker Keshet Inspire Center to spread Keshet's message of inclusion to synagogues. Jennifer is currently Keshet's Chief Program Officer.
Five years ago, through support from the Pritzker Pucker Family Foundation, Keshet began a journey to help other organizations foster inclusion and best provide for people with disabilities. The work done by the Pritzker Pucker Keshet Inspire Center takes what we learn in Keshet programs and shares it with groups all over the world. In Chicago, we have focused on working with Jewish congregations and religious schools. It’s led me to become an advocate for inclusive synagogues.
The Torah states that each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, (Genesis 1:27). Those in our community who have disabilities have the same value as those who don’t because we all come from the same place. Yet, many Jews with disabilities do not have the opportunities to participate in the richness of Jewish life. In many instances, individuals with disabilities are still unable to access the synagogue because of physical and communal barriers.
When those barriers are eliminated, many Jews with disabilities find warmth, a sense of belonging and feel welcomed in their Jewish community.
I view inclusion as letting everyone participate the way they are able to and want to. It’s about creating a culture that allows us all to be part of a service, class or social event in a way that is comfortable and welcoming to everyone. We are all unique with different needs and different contributions. Everyone’s uniqueness makes up what your community is.
In our consultations, congregants and clergy often ask what they can do to make their community more inclusive. It's simpler than you think.
- Be open to make modifications and adaptions in your services, programs and religious school.
- Help transport people to the synagogue who may have difficult time getting there on their own.
- Train ushers to know how to welcome and accommodate those who need help getting to their seats or to find a large print book.
- Be open minded about different ways to pray. For some it can be quiet reflection while others may need to be heard or wander in the room. Help the congregation understand that not every service has to be quiet.
- Reach out to families who have children with special needs and ask them how you can make it easier for them to participate.
- In the next survey of congregants, ask what makes them feel welcomed and report on how you will use those findings.
After working with countless synagogues, we’ve learned that the efforts to make a congregation more inclusive for people with disabilities ends up making the entire community feel more welcomed. We’ve seen tremendous growth in recent years as more synagogues put inclusion at the forefront of their work. There are some great examples of synagogues that are making inclusion a natural part of what they do. I hope we can all continue to learn from each other to create an inclusive Jewish community.