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Institute On Disabilities And Inclusion: Let Go Of The Old, Transform The Community

Institute On Disabilities And Inclusion: Let Go Of The Old, Transform The Community

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, z'l, is in the middle with the author on the right. Courtesy of Shelly Christensen
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, z'l, is in the middle with the author on the right. Courtesy of Shelly Christensen

Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared at

The second cohort of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion (JLIDI) convenes at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore for four days of intense study this week. They will be treated to compelling and insightful presentations by our excellent faculty, bond with and learn from each other and have time to reflect on individual leadership challenges.

When I returned from the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities (NLCDD) Leadership Institute, on which the JLIDI is based, in 2009, I was inspired by the concept of Person-Centered Thinking, in which all people have positive control over the lives they have chosen for themselves.

This aligns so much with the Jewish values of B’tzelem Elohim (that each person is created in the Divine Image) and the responsibility of each Jew in covenant with God to observe the commandments that formed the theological basis for inclusion. And I found that honoring and respecting each person’s right to make their own decisions about their lives was something that all people should be able to do.

Yet, when it came to supporting people with disabilities, we were creating programs with a Jewish context for people with disabilities. We were not including people in decision making about what they wanted for their own Jewish participation.

Segregation by any other name is still segregation. The result is still “them vs. us” thinking. People with disabilities, relegated to weekly or monthly programs often held at Jewish community institutions, were never asked what is important to them as individuals. Instead, we identified what we believed was important for people with disabilities, and in doing so perpetuated the myth that people with disabilities are incapable of making decisions that people get to make.

The word “inclusion,” in the past few years has come to mean that organizations have programs for people with disabilities in which they are welcome to attend. These include special religious school classes which are often called “sidestream” programs (as opposed to mainstream classes), separate adult education and holiday programs, worship services for people with disabilities and those who support them in separate rooms or after the “regular” service, and the list goes on.

The Leadership Institute opened my eyes to the real challenge facing our Jewish communities: One size will never fit all people with disabilities just as one size won’t fit people without disabilities. Why? Because all of us get to have positive control over the lives we choose for ourselves.

Creating and offering special programs perpetuates the myth that we have to take care of people with disabilities. And that is not what this is about.

I am concerned about how the term “inclusion” has come to mean programs for people with disabilities rather than participating alongside everyone else. As long as organizations offer segregated programs where people have little or no voice or control in how they wish to engage as a Jew, they are not practicing inclusion.

Inclusion is when people with disabilities get to live the kinds of Jewish lives that they determine, with supports if and when needed.

Our responsibility as Jews is to recognize, honor and support the spark of the Divine in each person and treat them as we ourselves want to be treated.

Shelly Christensen, MA literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Her award-winning work as Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis led her to co-found Jewish Disability Awareness Month with the Jewish Special Education International Consortium in 2009.

Shelly’s work as founder and Executive Director of Inclusion Innovations, where she provides training, organizational and community development, and strategic planning so Jewish organizations and communities around the world can become more welcoming and inclusive, is the standard in the field of sacred community inclusion. She is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. Shelly and her husband Rick are the parents of three children, one of whom has a disability.

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