Written by Meredith Polsky, Matan’s Director of Advocacy and Training
Three years ago, I called a parent meeting for one of our Matan classes. Most of the children had started with us at age 6. They were now turning 10, and it was time to begin the conversation about b’nai mitzvah. My plan had been to talk to this group of parents about the different types of services, venues, rabbi’s (some were affiliated with a particular synagogue; others were not), what my involvement could be and what they could expect throughout the next several years. My plan had been to lay it all out for them, exchange thoughts and ideas and create a good “jumping off point” for more individualized conversations.
The meeting did not go according to plan.
“What do you mean?” they asked shortly after I began.
“I’m not sure I understand your question,” I responded to these parents who I had gotten to know pretty well.
“What do you mean?” they repeated.
After some back and forth, I realized the disconnect: it had never occurred to them that their child could have a bar or bat mitzvah.
And that had never occurred to me.
The meeting did not go according to plan, but the message was crucial: “Yes, every one of your children can and will have a bar or bat mitzvah, if that is your goal.”
“Even my son?” one mom asked. “Yes. Especially your son.”
The months and years that followed have been eye-opening, inspiring and educational (particularly for me).
I could delineate how each family created a plan that took into account their child’s individual strengths; how parents talked with their child about what would be most meaningful; how they discussed their family goals and beliefs and crafted ceremonies and celebrations that felt right to them; how if every family approached the milestone in this way there would be a lot less conversation about putting the “mitzvah” back into the “bar”.
But instead I’ll talk about messaging. At Matan, we often hear from rabbis and other Jewish educators that they believe in inclusion; that they want all individuals to feel welcome in their synagogue; that they “get it”; that they recognize that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in God’s image. And all of these things are huge; in fact, they are critical. By no means are these sentiments to be taken for granted. But they are not enough.
If I were a parent of a child with a special need or disability looking for a Jewish community, looking for a place to belong, how would I know these things about you? If I were a parent who has been told “no” by society more times than I could count, how do I know that you’re not one more person who will tell me “no” if I’m even brave enough to ask the question? How do I know that you “get it” when I’ve never met you? How do I know that my child can celebrate her bat mitzvah when I’ve never seen another child like her embraced in that way?
Consider the following:
- Does your synagogue, religious school and early childhood program have inclusion statements?
- Are these statements easy to find on your website and in your print materials?
- Do you make it clear where you are on your inclusion journey, and where you hope to be?
- Do you seek out members of your community who have disabilities, or who work with individuals with special needs, in order to better understand where you are on the inclusion continuum?
- Do you celebrate individual accomplishments and not just those of “high achieving” students?
- Do you talk about inclusion from the bimah?
- Do you write about it in your newsletter?
- Have you ever shared a personal story about your own connection to someone with a special need?
- Do you make inclusion less about a “program” and more about a “culture”?
- Do you have a budget line dedicated to inclusion?
- Do you make sure that budget line remains a priority in the face of competing demands?
- Do you make sure that every individual in your community is valued for the unique gifts he/she brings to the table?
Recently the oldest of this group of Matan students celebrated his bar mitzvah at the synagogue where his family belongs. On the same bimah where his parents thought he could not be called to the Torah, this 13 year old held, kissed and read from that Torah with more devotion and more heart than most of us have probably ever seen. His parents were brave enough to ask the question, and as a result, an entire community witnessed what is possible.
And one day, parents won’t have to ask the question – because those that came before them will have paved the way, ensuring that every Jewish child has equal access to their Jewish birthright.