Making our Kehillot a Place to Belong

By Jennifer Gendel, Ed.D.

Humans need to belong. It’s fundamental to our sense of self and our place in the world. As babies, we smile at our caretakers to make a connection, as middle schoolers, we search for the lunch table where our friends are eating, and as college students, we seek out sororities and fraternities to join.

What does it mean to belong? The image above provides a visual representation of inclusion. I don’t know who created the image, but I often use it when I facilitate workshops, as I believe it (somewhat) effectively communicates various populations and groups, although it needs an update.

Special Educator Dr. Erik Carter of Vanderbilt University’s Faith and Flourishing Project conducted research on inclusion in church communities, in which young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families were surveyed and interviewed about their experience. His findings show that people want to be more than just integrated or included: They want to belong. Clearly, another paradigm needs to be created concerning community – and another circle should be added to the above image.

The inclusion circle in the current image shows multicolored dots within the circle. Each dot is alone, randomly found throughout the circle. We should try to make this picture more complete by connecting those dots. True and effective inclusion is more than an individual dot on a page. Its power is defined and illustrated by interrelatedness: the connections between individuals in the group, facilitated by a warm and welcoming attitude and the desire to know and be known.

So how can we use Dr. Carter’s research to improve inclusion of individuals with disabilities in our kehillot? Often, I have had congregational leaders tell me, “We don’t have any people with disabilities in our synagogue, but we would welcome them if we did.” My experience has shown intentional efforts to create meaningful relationships such as personal invitations to events are necessary to create an inclusionary culture.

Posting disability policy, positive messages and pictures about inclusion on social media is a good start, but is not enough to foster such a culture. Most outreach efforts are universal and will help everyone in your shul feel they belong. However, specifically reaching out to individuals with disabilities and their families will help you achieve a truly positive inclusive environment.

Another step that you can take to build a culture of inclusivity is to create structures to assist with transportation, staff training and recruitment. An effective strategy utilized in some synagogues is to provide opportunities in which one or two congregants commit to getting to know individuals with disabilities and their families.

Communication from the pulpit is also important when it comes to encouraging acceptance. A requirement for kehillot that are part of the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community is that clergy must address the congregation on the topic of inclusion at least two times a year. We require this because as leaders, clergy have the unique opportunity to be role models and create cultural change. It is extremely powerful when clergy support inclusion and communicate the message that every person is important and contributes to the vitality of the kehilla.

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Throughout this article, I’ve provided different images that represent inclusion. There were colored dots interspersed among blue dots. That showed inclusion, but not belonging. Then, I added lines to connect the dots. This is described as powerful inclusion: it represents more than just a presence of different colored dots, but a relationship between them. However, there is still something missing.

As I tried to think outside the box to imagine an illustration that would best represent inclusion, another image sprang to mind. What I came up with was literally from inside the box – a box of cereal that is! – in which orange, lemon, cherry and lime O’s touch and overlap: An image where all are unique and yet all belong.

So, think about this image starting at breakfast today, and think about how you can create new structures that will encourage connections and a sense of belonging. A box of fruity cereal would not be the same if only one color were present. In the same vein, you will realize how much richer your life and kehillot can be when you utilize the gifts and faith of people with disabilities.

Go ahead: Invite someone with a disability to join you for a cup of coffee … and maybe enjoy a bowl of cereal to go with it.

Jennifer Gendel, Ed.D. is the Inclusion Specialist at USCJ. With the generous support from the Ruderman Family Foundation, USCJ has worked with over 60 synagogues to strengthen and grow in the area of disability inclusion. In addition to her work at USCJ, Dr. Gendel consults with organizations working to become more inclusive through the Pritzker Pucker Keshet Inspire Center in Chicago and mentors educational leaders studying in the Matan Institutes in New York.