As an educator in a fully inclusive supplemental religious school, which is part of a fully inclusive Reform congregation, one of the questions I am most often asked is “How do you do it?” I am eager to share my thoughts and suggestions, especially if it means that other congregations will move toward greater inclusion. And yet, while I share and have written articles such as Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive, I’d be lying if I said that you’d be all set if you just read and followed 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.”
That is because inclusion is not a program.
It is not a committee in your congregation or a classroom in your school or a favor you do for someone. Rather, inclusion is an attitude. It is a mindset. It is consistently acting on the genuine belief that everyone has a right to belong. Everything we do and say, the way we act and the way we treat one another, even the way we think about community, either is inclusive or it isn’t. Inclusion is making sure that every program, every event, every day, fully welcomes everyone and that everyone knows he or she has a place to participate.
So answering the question, “How do you do it?” isn’t so easy. However, I will share the way our community approached our First Annual All-School, Community-Wide Chanukiah Making Contest, ensuring that it was fully inclusive in every way.
We plan all of our programs, worship and events well in advance, thinking about all of the moving parts and paying attention to all of the details. This program was no exception. The idea was formed last June, and we talked about it with various stakeholders over many months as it began to take shape. While this may seem like common sense, you’d be amazed at how many professionals neglect this piece of the puzzle, saying they “thrive on pressure” or do their best work "last minute." Inclusion needs planning. Always.
Although this began as a school program, we invited the partnership of many others including the school committee, clergy and groups such as our Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Partnerships are critical to successful inclusion and involving key stakeholders along the way ensures that everyone is on the same page.
All of our communication including emails, flyers and conversations with one another used the language of "all-school, community-wide" event. We were deliberate in consistently saying and writing "everyone is welcome." It may seem like a small detail, but words matter.
All Means all
If you are going to say that everyone is welcome, you have to be prepared to welcome everyone who wants to participate. We planned the furniture layout and flow of the space to be fully accessible. We also designed the program to be family-oriented, stressing that everyone with or without children were welcome. By doing so we ensured that anyone needing unique or special assistance would not stand out in any way.
Finally, we made sure that we had something for everyone, including alternatives. We had a station for "little hands" to engage the youngest participants and a "sensory space" for those feeling overwhelmed by the crowd. And, of course, for the central program we made sure to engage every sense, ensuring that we would reach every learner:
• Tactile – arts and crafts, including materials of many different textures
• Taste – lots of delicious treats
• Sound – singing, talking with friends
• Sight – Chanukiah-making materials in a vast array of colors, shapes, & sizes
• Smell – frying latkes make me smile, every time!
The day was wonderful, everyone was marvelously engaged and we are already looking forward to next year!!
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She oversees an extensive special needs program within the religious school, with programs designed to help students learn about their Jewish heritage, feel connected to their Jewish community and successfully learn Hebrew. Additionally, Lisa facilitates conversations about inclusion throughout the synagogue as whole and helps the congregation to shape its best practices. Lisa is the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan and writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education.