A Boulder Commitment

One Step at a Time

Several members of the Boulder Jewish Community

Several members of the Boulder Jewish Community

Right before Passover I was invited to give a two day training initiative for the Boulder Jewish Community. So great is the interest in becoming an inclusive home for Jews with disabilities and their families that twenty Jewish organizations and 3 non-Jewish organizations were represented at the training. That is a great number by anyone’s standards and quite remarkable considering the time of year.

Inclusion of people with disabilities and their families is settling on the front page of the national Jewish agenda. So when the Boulder community decided to take the step by bringing me in as their consultant, they recognized that it was time to act.

Your community can take a page from the Boulder playbook to enhance your own inclusion initiative.

I led a comprehensive 2 day training on becoming an inclusive community. The participants were all leaders in their organizations including clergy, staff, lay leaders and funders.  Every participant identified their own role in creating inclusion initiatives both within their own organization and in the community. Lively discussions occurred all day long as we discussed text, concepts and actions that inform inclusive practices.

Rabbi Joshua Rose of Har HaShem, our host for the training, opened the conference drawing from the wisdom of our Passover rituals. We open our seders, he said, by welcoming all who are in need and by caring for them. We end our seders by opening our doors to the sacred presence as we invite Eliyahu HaNavi to our tables.  So should it be in our congregations and our Jewish communities. Judaism demands that we welcome the stranger, and those who wish to belong, recognizing the holiness in each person.

Our Boulder journey continued as I led the participants in a visioning session. The leaders learned how a credible vision of inclusion must be based on the current situation in one’s own organization. As with all worthy journeys, we can only know how to get to where we want to be by knowing where we start. Following an example of a visioning session, I led a conversation that was enhanced by our daylong session which helped clarify next steps.

The following day I met with education directors, teachers, youth workers and special educators. I shared my own graduate school thesis in an interactive session on parenting a child with a disability. I have learned throughout the years that this information enhances effective communication between those who support our young people at home and in formal and informal educational settings.

Finally, as Shabbat arrived, Rabbi Rose invited me to the bimah. I shared the most meaningful part of my work—how people have achieved their goals of belonging to the Jewish community, overcoming barriers and biases, and bringing their congregations and community along as partners on this great journey of inclusion. It was a moving and fitting way to begin Shabbat and to say “Shalom” to the Boulder Jewish community.

NEXT BLOG: Volunteers with Vision: Susan Glairon.

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On Being Needed and Loved

fenceRabbi Richard Address of the Union for Reform Judaism defines the Theology of Relationships as “the sacred relationship that you establish with people along your journey.” Our most important need in this context is to be needed and loved.

Our biggest fear?

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Opening Abraham’s Tent-The Disability Inclusion Initiative

Dr. Jeff Lichtman, Shelly Christensen, Susan Berman, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg at the Disability Inclusion Conference, Baltimore, November 2012


Eleven years doesn’t seem that long to me.

Eleven? That’s how long I’ve been dedicated to the responsibility to make our Jewish communities accessible to people with disabilities. My own community, Minneapolis, virtually resonates with the Tachlis of Inclusion within all of our institutions compared to eleven years ago.

I’m mighty proud of the work that my entire community has done in the name of Inclusion of People with Disabilities. We have raised awareness and incorporated practices that provide myriad points of entry for people with a range of diagnoses so that their lives are woven into the glorious fabric of Jewish life. Looking back on those eleven years, I often marvel at how the lives of people with disabilities and their families have changed as they take their rightful places in Jewish life.

I am also involved on a national basis working with other Jewish communities to take the same steps we’ve taken in Minneapolis. This has become my life’s work and I am pleased to tell you about a remarkable leap in awareness and desire to “bring it on.”

Two weeks ago the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Jewish Funders Network (JFN), the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) and the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust partnered to convene  Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative.These organizations took the bold step to host over 130 Jewish community and national leaders to learn from a number of successful initiatives supporting inclusion. Throughout the day attendees solemnly agreed that the marginalization of 20% of the Jewish population who have disabilities has to end.

In an editorial by Jennifer Lazslo Mizrahi, the Founder & President of Laszlo Strategies and co-director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust, and one of the conference sponsors “it was meaningful that the gathering included luminaries in the field from all different walks of Jewish life, as well as representatives from the breadth of religious, Jewish social service and education organizations and from more than two-dozen communities.”

JFNA’s Disability Committee has been working on the issue for several years. Through thoughtful discussion they revealed the “Four Key Elements of Inclusion,” to guide efforts by federations and its affiliated agencies to achieve meaningful progress towards becoming more inclusive:

  • Accessibility—Ensuring that people with disabilities can access Jewish institutions in our communities and all of the activities held within them.
  • Acceptance—Understanding that each one of us has a role to play so that all people are welcome and can participate in meaningful ways.
  • Accommodation—Adapting and modifying the environment or programming to allow people with disabilities to actively participate.
  • Welcoming—Treating people with disabilities and their families with respect and dignity reflects and celebrating diversity while creating a sense of unity within the Jewish community.

The Jewish Funders Network launched a remarkable new publication: A Guide for Funding Disabilities and Special Needs, edited by Steve Eidelman. You can download a free copy and I strongly recommend that you read the guide. I’m proud that Steve asked me to write the chapter on synagogue inclusion.

I will be updating you on the progress of the Disability Inclusion Initiative over time. I believe that together we can make remarkable progress.

After eleven years and counting, I have a bit of advice for anyone involved in inclusion at the international, national and local levels. We cannot create inclusive communities for people with disabilities without them. The rallying cry of the self-advocacy movement, “Nothing about us without us” has to be a standard for best practice in this field. If we are not about the people we serve then our efforts yield far less than our capacity allows. People with disabilities are our guides and our partners in this work. Let us always remember this.

Shelly Christensen

November 30, 2012

16 Kislev, 5773

Shelly is Founder and Executive Director of Inclusion Innovations Consulting and co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month. She is the author of “Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Shelly is the Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. She is a frequent keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on best practices for inclusive Jewish communities.


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Each Voice Matters

votingrightsI wish people would stop making blanket assumptions about other people. Have you heard the one about the controversy in Minnesota that looks at disenfranchising 22,000 voters who have disabilities who also have varying degrees of guardianship? An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that a Ron Kaus of Duluth is a plaintiff in a Federal lawsuit that has raised the issue.

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Are You Praying With Me or For Me?

Magen David mixRachel Feld-Glazman of Temple Kol Ami in New York is the co-chair of her congregation’s Inclusion Committee. She recently wrote me to ask how the subject of inclusion of people with disabilities could be woven into the service on a regular basis. Continue reading

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Thrift Stores and Advocacy in Washington DC

flamingosI’m sitting at the dining room table (or “desk”) at the Washington DC home of my dear friend, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg. She is one of the driving forces behind inclusion of people with disabilities in sacred communities. As someone who sustained a devastating traumatic brain injury (TBI)12 years ago in a traffic accident, Lynne’s incredible and ongoing work to live her life fully is guided, I think, by her passion and respect for all people, and her belief that she must be strong enough to make the difference in society that is her destiny. Continue reading

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Jewish Disability Awareness Month Almost Here!

Large JDAM 2012We attended a Vietnamese New Year party last Saturday night. The food was awesome and our hostess made sure that she made plenty of dishes without pork. Now that’s hospitality and inclusion! As we talked about rituals and traditions I learned that if you think good thoughts about good things on the New Year, then that is how your year will be. And, the opposite would also apply, according to our hosts. Continue reading

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New Year! New Opportunities!

We are busy planning our 2012 conference and travel schedules. I will be in the Washington DC area Feb. 5-12 to participate in JDAM 2012 Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill and am Inclusion Expressat several locations in Washington DC. I will be in Los Angeles Feb. 28 and 29 keynoting the Los Angeles Jewish Community Inclusion Conference Feb. 29 and speaking at other events.
I will also be in the Baltimore MD area the first week of May.
Please contact me to chat about how we, at Inclusion Innovations, can partner with you to turn your good intentions into action!
Happy 2012 and warmest regards,
Shelly Christensen
Founder Inclusion Innovations LLC
Co-Founder Jewish Disability Awareness Month

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What do you get if you keep doing what you’ve always done?

More of the same, that’s for sure!

I was thinking about analogies for inclusion to help people understand the intentional nature of change thinking and how to really get results. If you think that becoming an ice creaminclusive congregation is strictly intuitive, and happens without much dedication and effort it’s time that I fall back on something I know as well as inclusion, maybe better, as an analogy: Losing weight. Continue reading

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Saying “Sorry”–Not Just for Yom Kippur!

www.inclusioninnovations.comFor those of us who are Jews we begin our accounting of what we might have done to hurt others, to hurt God, or to hurt ourselves. At Rosh Hashanah the Gates of Heaven open so that our prayers might be heard by God. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we pray for forgiveness more fervently than we do all year long. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness from the people around us: our children, our parents, other relatives, friends, colleagues. In a way, we are shedding our coats of sin, leaving ourselves as clean as a newborn baby.

But being human means we don’t stay in that state for long. Continue reading

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