Let’s Get Started!

Written by Dori Frumin Kirshner, Matan’s Executive Director billboard, MatanDo you trust your GPS? Have you ever relied on its navigational advice only to find yourself nowhere near your intended destination?

How do you react when this happens? Do you get so flustered and frustrated that your meeting or the event you are headed toward is tainted in some way? Or do you handle it calmly, taking it in stride and recognizing that sometimes the journey is as significant as the destination?

If you are like me, it’s probably a little of both – depending on the day.

Recently I found myself turning around in a church parking lot after my GPS took me completely off-course for my final destination. As I turned around I noticed a large sign with interchangeable letters sharing a pithy proverb: “You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.”

Instead of ignoring the sign in my rush to get to my location, I chose instead to jot this adage down. And reflect on it. What I have realized is that it encapsulates the whole meaning of JDAM – this month of February – Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.

So many times – people, congregations, communities – don’t know where to start with regard to inclusion. The task may seem insurmountable and organizations can become overwhelmed by the scope of change. The truth is, for inclusion to be successful; you truly just need to start.

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.”

So, where do we start?

Personnel – Chances are there are people within your community who are qualified practitioners. We suggest adding someone to the educational environment who can help guide the process toward inclusion. We STRONGLY recommend to synagogues, camps and early childhood centers that they hire (even part-time) a learning specialist and be mindful about the scope of that person’s role. Often that person becomes the go-to for all things inclusion, or his/her time is narrowly focused on one particular area. Mindful planning around the role of the learning specialist can have a significant impact on the community as a whole.

Training Teachers and volunteers who are utilized in classroom settings (early childhood, religious school, etc.) need to be trained in special needs and disabilities, including, but not limited to, differentiated instruction, behavior management, multiple learning styles and multi-modal teaching. It should be noted that this type of teacher training benefits all students in a classroom, not just those with identified special learning needs. Therefore, an investment in teacher training around inclusion is truly an investment in the entire learning community.

At Matan, we dedicate most of our efforts to training educational leaders – Early Childhood Directors, Education Directors, Youth professionals, Camp Directors, and so on. These leaders can affect cultural change, so the more informed they are about hiring practices, the training their teachers need in the area of inclusion, enrollment/intake process, etc., the better the experience will be for everyone in the community.

Intra-Agency Collaboration and Communication Often there’s a disconnect within institutions or organizations. While the community as a whole may say that it values inclusion, the stakeholders do not come together at regular intervals to move the work forward and reflect on the process. When one person is designated within a community as the “inclusion person” it can lead to silos or an attitude of “not my responsibility”. Inclusion must be a shared responsibility for success. For example, in a synagogue, the Education Director, clergy, learning specialist, Early Childhood Director and Executive Director should plan to meet regularly as stakeholders and involve lay leaders from the inclusion committee (where applicable) in those conversations. Inclusion must be a shared process with regularly scheduled check-ins to keep inclusion a priority.

Community-Awareness In many communities, there is a core group of like-minded professionals and lay leaders who shoulder the communal responsibility of inclusion. We highly recommend that communities create avenues for bringing “everyone else” along on the journey towards a more inclusive Jewish community. Cultural events such as The Reelabilities Film Festival, a speaker series or an annual event (possibly during February’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month) are wonderful ways to include everyone in the efforts and conversations.

Inter-Agency Collaboration and Communication Communities that “do” inclusion well establish an easy, streamlined method by which institutions are aware of each other’s strengths, capabilities, and populations’ needs. This can be accomplished by regular meetings of various stakeholders from various institutions, a communal directory, etc. Inclusion succeeds when the needs of people comes before the needs of organizations. In some communities, families can be a member of one synagogue but enroll their child in a different synagogue’s religious school that meets their child’s specific educational needs. In order to meet the needs of people, giving them the greatest opportunity to live meaningful, Jewish lives, agencies need to work together.

This is a guide for getting started. But if your GPS frustrates you, turn it off. Enjoy the journey, see where you end up. It might not be where you thought you needed to go, but who knows; maybe it will be even better.

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.”

Let’s get started!