What We Really Need is to Take Inclusion for Granted

By Ed Frim

Progress is not about grand statements, dramatic new programs, or colorful speakers. While such experiences may provide temporary inspiration, and occasionally lead to sustained efforts, most become just memories. Good PR is a great beginning, but unless it is paired with a structure for moving ahead, we cannot change the culture of an organization or community.

For the past year I have served as the Ruderman Inclusion Specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, directing the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community, helping synagogues to become more inclusive of people with disabilities. We have chosen to pursue this work in a systematic way, by building networks, creating relationships, teaching leadership and planning skills, and providing accountability for moving forward. The first year of our initiative, a partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, is culminating this weekend at the 2015 USCJ convention, Shape the Center, in Chicagoland.

In “Is Anybody Home,” Robert H. Isaacs noted that November is the season of major gatherings in the Jewish world, and that all are trying to make Jewish life more meaningful and relevant to larger numbers of people. The USCJ convention shares the goal of actively making positive change for the Jewish future, which Isaacs defined at the recent Union for Reform Judaism Biennial as,” how to make Judaism more relevant, more welcoming and more engaging… to make a positive difference in the world.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, has called this “Audacious Hospitality.” He describes it as, “The Jewish people are here today because those who came before us were audacious. By that I mean courageous, fearless, and bold…. Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of community – and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process. Audacious hospitality is a two-way street where synagogue and stranger need each other, where we not only teach newcomers, but they teach us.”

I enthusiastically agree with Rabbi Jacobs that we need to create a welcoming, inclusive culture in our synagogues, based on forming positive mutual relationships. But I disagree with Rabbi Jacobs premise that such hospitality is created through courage and fearlessness.

What we have worked for in the USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community, and what I believe we will see across the upcoming USCJ convention, is a vision of Common Inclusion. The Hebrew word for hospitality, Eiruach, refers to welcoming a guest, a temporary relationship. The Hebrew word for Inclusion, Hachlala, is about taking someone in permanently. Hachlala means to include someone as part of our community, whether they have a disability, a different sexual preference or gender, or if they have married outside the faith. And we will know that we have succeeded in being inclusive not when being inspired, or acting audaciously, but rather when we take such inclusion for granted.

I had the privilege of being part of the Ruderman Inclusion Summit last week, where Jay Ruderman discussed inclusion of people with disabilities in our Jewish, synagogue and general communities as a Civil Rights issue. Or as Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the USCJ, states, inclusion is an obligation, “one of Judaism’s essential teachings, that each one of us is created in the image of God and each life has intrinsic value.”

What we really need in order to become the welcoming, inclusive community we wish to be is Common Inclusion, to take these obligations for granted, and have the tools to make these commitments a reality.

Our USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community has adapted tools from the USCJ’s Sulam leadership training programs to guide our congregations in creating action plans for inclusion, and in implementing those plans. In our evaluations of the project, one of the key factors that emerged to help move a congregation forward was accountability to an outside structure such as our Action Community. In our efforts around inclusion, it has been this adherence to concrete behaviors and actions, as well as a commitment ongoing learning and networking, that has helped leaders, members, clergy and staff in participating congregations learn to take inclusion for granted and change their community culture. At next week’s convention, this methodology will be apparent in many workshops and sessions about how to plan and implement change around inclusion of LGBTQ, intermarried families and others.

When a community, a kehilla, helps members recognize their obligations to each other, and when they are provided the concrete tools to help plan for a culture of Common Inclusion, it strengthens their community. The most successful of our synagogues have developed into communities that are truly inspiring, where individuals with disabilities are able to share their gifts and contribute their efforts to building and maintaining a kehilla kedoshah, a holy community, that embraces everyone as being created in God’s image and applies our ideals, wisdom and traditions to the modern world to make a true difference.

Ed Frim is a consultant serving as Inclusion Specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and as Inclusion and Outreach Specialist for Chicago’s Encompass/JCFS/JUF/ Federation. He spent more almost 30 years as a director at central agencies for Jewish education and as a planner at Jewish federations. He can be reached at edfrim@aol.com.