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URJ Biennial: Will This Be The Year Of Inclusion?

URJ Biennial: Will This Be The Year Of Inclusion?

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish disability inclusion. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at "Removing the Stumbling Block."

In just a couple of days, nearly five thousand Reform Jews will descend upon the San Diego Convention Center for the 72nd Union of Reform Judaism Biennial Convention. Despite that impressive number, this experience has not been fully inclusive of those with disabilities.

From the Biennial website: “Biennial is where Jews gather to learn, pray, share ideas, dance and sing, hear from inspiring guest speakers, reunite with old friends, make new connections, and reimagine Jewish life.”

Biennial is a unique opportunity for lay leaders, professionals and members of Reform communities to come together for an inspiring five days of learning, worship and community. There is something for everybody… almost.

Over the past six years that I have been attending Biennials, I have noticed that while accommodations are available, they have not been sufficient. As in all aspects of Jewish life, those who are tenacious and determined have forged their path and participated, but there has not been a concerted effort to seek, welcome and include Jews with disabilities.

In addition, I have been involved in planning and leading a variety of learning sessions over the years on the topic of helping our congregations, camps and youth experiences to become inclusive of individuals with disabilities. Despite these passionate conversations, I’m concerned that these sessions aren’t the jumpstart to more significant inclusion that we hope they will be. I have wondered, despite strong advocates and amazing speakers, despite assertions of commitment, if we, as a movement, would ever really take the strides necessary to weave true inclusion into both our Biennial and the lives of our congregations.

I think that this can be the year.

The Union for Reform Judaism has partnered with The Ruderman Family Foundation to lead by example. Their goals include raising awareness of the importance of inclusion in general and developing and implementing best practices at the 2013 URJ Biennial in particular.

This foundation’s advocacy of inclusion all aspects of Jewish and congregational life makes it a leader. I encourage you to read more about this exciting partnership and the inclusion plans for the upcoming Biennial.

I believe that this partnership can serve as the springboard for change. I believe that we can move beyond the Biennial itself. I believe that this can be the first step toward making full inclusion across the Reform Movement a reality.

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 writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education:

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