One sunny November Shabbat morning Jonathan became a Bar Mitzvah. Having been the Education Director at this synagogue for more than a year, I couldn’t take credit for Jon’s accomplishments. At least not all of them. But I saw his success as the mountain top we needed to get to for all of our congregants. So, I participated in the Matan Institute for Jewish Educators, where their special emphasis is on accessibility and inclusion. To say it was life-changing would be hyperbole, but it was an eye-opening and paradigm shifting experience.
I was speaking with my mentor from Matan, and she asked me about any changes I had seen since beginning the institute. You know how certain spices always enhance a dish? How, the first time that you taste a familiar food, prepared with this special spice, you’re blown away by the improvement, enhancement, depth and all-around “wow” factor? That was exactly how I felt. All of a sudden, inclusion was my Special Spice.
So I started cooking.
I followed a recipe
The best way to learn how to cook is to follow a recipe, and there is a wonderful, step-by-step instruction for creating an inclusive community designed by Metrowest ABLE. You’ve probably got some of the requirements checked off already; I know we did. Elevator: check. Ramp: check. Large print siddur: check. Hearing “aides”: check. Make it a game with your students – have them go around the building and see what is in place and what still needs to be in place. I personally gave my all to this effort by injuring my foot so severely that I needed the synagogue wheelchair, thereby becoming the poster child for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.
I checked my ingredients
What/who do you have in your constituency already? Are there people with disabilities who are challenged when they try to use your facility? Touch base with them and enlist their help. They may have a vantage point that you don’t. Also, remember that for every person who has a visible disability, there are many who struggle that you do not see.
Religious School Registration includes a Learning Profile for each student, with questions dealing with the way each child learns best, if they need frequent breaks or prefer to stand.
Sensory issues are often not addressed. A simple way to encourage participation is to add a phrase at the bottom of your publicity: “If you have any sensory issues that you need addressed, please contact us so that we can work together to make you more comfortable.”
Build an Inclusion Committee from interested parties. Don’t worry, you’ll get suggestions!
I seasoned to taste
Start with a bit, see how it tastes, and you’ll find that soon you’re adding it to everything! Not only that, you’ll start noticing where you need to add some inclusion! We now have fidget boxes in every class for those who need a bit of help channeling that excess energy; schedules prominently posted help clarify the flow of the day; “Advocates” (formerly “Shadows”)* to ease the stresses of a noisy, transition-and-sensory-rich atmosphere.[*Advocates – There is a Jewish tradition about names; Changing names can change destinies, and attitudes. Avram changed his and look where it got him. My feeling was that a Shadow just followed you around. The most you could expect was a dance duet; an Advocate, on the other hand was pro-active, and had your back, as it were.]
Invite your friends to dinner!
At the first teacher meeting of the year, I demonstrated differentiated lessons. Even the teachers saw that they gravitated to one type of activity more than another, but saw how this could work in their classrooms and each pledged to try something new. Now we regularly break into stations and give the students different ways to learn and reinforce the lessons. They have changed class “seating”; often there are groups of children sitting in the hall or off in a quiet corner of the room.
As the year comes to a close, I see many ways that I can spice up my school. I’m putting noise-cancelling headphones, advocate-training, beanbag chairs and tablets on my “grocery list”.
Spice up your life (and school, and community) with inclusion. You can do it!
Gail Beckman Buchbinder is a life-long Jewish Educator, mother and grandmother. Her travels have taken her all over the world, but her greatest joy is cooking at home with her grandchildren. She is currently the Education Director at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, NJ and a participant in cohort 5 of the Matan Institute. “Morah Gail” considers all of her students, past and present, her children.