In a small community in Pittsburgh, starting in 1910, there was a shift in mindset. The Pittsburgh Blind Association started to teach people with visual impairment how to make brooms, an item found in every home, but rarely given much thought. That year, in Pittsburgh, they thought a lot about brooms and about who would be the best person for the job of broom maker.
And the Pittsburgh Blind Association found the perfect broom makers in those who were previously cast out of the community. The visually impaired learned to make brooms of all sizes, and they meticulously tied the straw together to form each piece. In Pittsburgh in 1910 something went right, and they started to recognize people for what they could do and not what they couldn’t do.
That is what we need to do in our Jewish community. That is the change I am trying to help create with Rosh Pina, which challenges Jewish institutions to think beyond programs to create a plan that makes them more inclusive on all levels.
In our schools, synagogues, JCCs, camps, museums and Federations, we need to uncover people’s strengths and as a community shift our mindset.
Even Ma’asu habonim haita l’rosh pina – In Psalm 118, the psalmist explains that the stone the builder has rejected should be the cornerstone. No building could be complete without one; it’s integral to the structure. Yet here, the psalmist suggests using the stone that was rejected for this very important purpose. Imagine if the weakest, most vulnerable and most marginalized members of our community could become our cornerstone.
After many years of working in the intersection of Jewish and special education, I noticed two things. One: around the country there were fabulous programs for people with disabilities and their families, but they were limited. The student would come to Hebrew School, for example, sit for two hours with the learning specialist and then leave without accessing anything else within the community.
Two: that many institutions would only think about inclusion after being approached by a member or potential member, which meant people with disabilities had to ask to be able to participate in a way others didn’t have to.
Rosh Pina was created to change these realities. We support Jewish institutions to think holistically about how and who they include on every level of their institutional life. In our inaugural year, we are guiding two Bay Area institutions, one synagogue and one day school, toward certification as an inclusive home to all people of all abilities.
Other institutions across the country are interested in our certification, which involves a year-long process of self-reflection and planning, as well. In the synagogue we are currently working with, we are doing professional development for the Hebrew School staff on “Differentiated Instruction,” and with the preschool staff we are doing a series on language, environment and inclusion. With the entire synagogue, we are working with an inclusion committee to create some type of community-wide celebration of inclusion.
The process is messy, and meaningful. And as the Pittsburgh blind association first decided to make that shift, and think differently about who is able to do what in their own community, so we can do the same. We must think about who is within our walls and who is not, who is knocking on our doors and who is not, and who among us can make the most beautiful, elegant brooms.
Elana has been working at the intersection of special education and Jewish education for over 15 years. She is the founder and Executive Director of Rosh Pina, a non-profit that offers a certification for Jewish institutions after a year-long process of reflecting and creating a more inclusive community for people with disabilities. She is the Ruderman Fellow of the Joshua Venture Group and a member of the newest cohort of Upstart Bay Area. She directs the Tikvah program for kids with disabilities at Camp Ramah in California, which includes a camper program, a vocational program for young adults, and a camp for families that have children with disabilities. Elana has consulted with multiple Jewish institutions to aid them in thinking about how to be more inclusive of Jews of all abilities. She has taught professional development courses in differentiated instruction, behavior management and teaching Hebrew. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and three boys, Yair, Nevo and Etai. Learn more at: http://joshuaventuregroup.org/2012/fellows/fellows-current/elana-naftalin-kelman#sthash.RGuFSug9.dpuf