Imagine this: one day you are told by your own synagogue, “Sorry, we can’t help you. Our synagogue isn’t for you. We won’t be able to meet your needs.”
What would you be deprived of if suddenly you were denied access to your synagogue? Your spiritual home? A place to pray, celebrate and contribute your time and energy? A Jewish education for your young preschooler or older children? Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for your parents?
This very thing has happened, many times, to Sharon.
Sharon was 42 years old when I met her. She had grown up in Grand Forks, ND in a small Jewish community. The synagogue’s stairs made it impossible for Sharon to enter the shul on her own. She needed several strong men to hoist her, in her wheelchair, up those stairs.
Those stairs are a symbol of exclusion of people with disabilities and their families. And they represent more than not being able to simply enter a synagogue. They symbolize the nearly 20 percent of the Jewish population who live with intellectual, developmental, physical, neurobehavioral and emotional disabilities who are struggling to live full and meaningful Jewish lives.
Think about about your own synagogue. Must you walk up steps to enter? Is there a ramp? What about the bima? Have you ever thought about this before?
Sharon does not want your pity. In her own words, repeated over the past 11 years that we’ve been friends and partners in the drive for inclusion in the Jewish community: “All I’ve ever wanted was to belong.”
In 2008, the Jewish Special Education Consortium met in my hometown of Minneapolis. We talked about the very issue that Sharon and many others must deal with: wanting to take one’s rightful place as a contributing member of one’s Jewish community — just like everyone else.
At that meeting, we decided that we would join together to promote inclusion in our own Jewish communities by starting Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), with the first one to take place in February 2009. I was honored to take the reins of this initiative because of my experience directing the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Our approach is cutting-edge, and it works, because I teach synagogues and Jewish institutions how to see the barriers to participation that are sometimes hard to see, if you do not have disabilities, but all too obvious, if you do.
The posts that I contribute to “The New Normal” will provide readers with a glimpse into the lives of people who live with disabilities, their families and the Jewish organizations that welcome them. I will get into the tachlis, too, the nitty-gritty: I’ll provide a range of strategies and steps that do not strain human and financial resources in order to become a place where all may worship and belong.
I have often told people, “I wish you could spend a day with me in my work. Hearing the challenges that people face due to disability, and providing avenues of hope as their partner, will give you a new appreciation for making inclusion a priority in your own Jewish world.”
JDAM raises awareness. The rest of the year, we points of entry into the community and work with people with disabilities, their families, and truly, the entire Jewish community, to ensure that those portals are open.
Shelly Christensen, MA is one of the leading authors, speakers and practitioners of inclusion of people with disabilities in sacred communities. As Program Manager of the award-winning and cutting-edge Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities since 2001, she has successfully worked to change the culture in synagogues and the Jewish community. In 2009 she co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) with the Jewish Special Education Consortium. Shelly and her husband Rick are the parents of three sons, one of whom has Asperger syndrome. She has personally navigated the Jewish and secular communities with passion for meaningful participation by people with disabilities and their families.