The Power of Yes

The Power of Yes; Removing the Stumbling Block

We love blog posts that boast how you can “Change Your Life in 5 Easy Steps” or ones that offer us “10 Steps for Finding Happiness”. And as a blogger, I have written a handful of articles offering concrete, practical advice such as Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make.

But I’d be misleading you if I offered to just hand you the steps to making your school or synagogue more inclusive. Even if I told you the steps that my congregation followed, you can’t just wrap our process up with a bow and plunk it down into your community saying, “Ok, now we are inclusive”.

Why not? Because becoming an inclusive community is a process. It is a deliberate and intentional transformation. It is a work in progress.

And yet, there is one piece of solid, tried & true advice that I can offer.  Say yes. 

Say yes because far too many have said no. Far too many still say no. Some of them “get around to “yes” with a lot of pushing and prodding, but that just leaves everyone involved with lingering frustrations and a sense of wariness. 
Inclusive congregations say yes and mean it; Removing the Stumbling Block
Yes is powerful. 

Yes builds relationships. 

Yes demonstrates commitment. 

Say yes; then find the partners who can help you to figure it out.

From the day I stepped through the doors of Temple Beth-El almost sixteen years ago, I have led with a philosophy of “yes”. When I say, “Yes, we can meet your needs…please help me understand how to do that,” I enable families to trust me and to recognize that we are all on the same team. I am not suggesting that every request and potential accommodation can and will be met with “yes”, but by opening the door we set the stage for an honest and trusting relationship. It means that when something truly is not possible, we can speak about it calmly and realistically.

This has been the single most powerful secret to the success of my congregation. 

Far too many congregations promote themselves as “warm, welcoming and inclusive”. But often these are just the right words to put on brochures and websites. What separates congregations who are genuinely inclusive from those who say they are is their ability to say yes and mean it. These are the congregations who recognize that inclusion isn’t a committee, that inclusion isn’t a program and that inclusion isn’t a classroom in the school. The congregations that do it right recognize that inclusion defines them, it is part of who they are.

Have We Come Far Enough?

This Sunday, along with colleague Meredith Polsky, I will be offering the opening keynote at the annual Hebrew College GISHA Conference in Boston. This is a tremendous honor and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to teach among so many respected colleagues.

In finalizing my thoughts and remarks, I chose to reread the very first speech I gave in Jewish special education. (In 2007 Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, the Senior Adviser on Disabilities for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, invited me to speak with her at a session for clergy and educators in what was then the New Jersey West Hudson Valley Council.)

As I read, I was instantly and significantly struck by the way my own words still resonate. Quite honestly, with a few tweaks, I could give this same speech today. 

I’m not sure how I feel about that. 

I know that we have come a long way in advancing inclusion in the Jewish world, but have we come far enough? My words from more than seven years ago have left me wondering if I should feel proud that so much of my work has been well ahead of the curve, or disheartened that these are words that must still be said today. Maybe it’s a little of both…

Either way, I thought you might like to read some of the most salient parts of those remarks from 2007:

“The focus of my time with you will be to discuss providing a Jewish education for individuals with disabilities and how we can meet the needs of every student in our religious schools. There are many teachings that show us how Judaism values education and the inclusion of people with disabilities…However my favorite example is Moses, who says, “Please, Adonai…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Here we see our people’s great prophet and teacher trying to convince God that he is not the right choice to lead the Jewish people to freedom because of his self-proclaimed disability. God disagrees with Moses and will not let him off the hook. Instead, he provides Moses with an assistant, an aide, in Aaron to help him through the mission. God’s decision reminds us that we all have challenges to overcome and that it’s ok to have help in reaching our goals.”
“The experience of receiving a Jewish education is not just about making it to bar or bat mitzvah as an end point. Just the opposite. We believe strongly in the vision of creating lifelong learners. We want our children to grow up to be productive members of society, committed Jews and strong assets in our Jewish communities. I can tell you, with the utmost certainty, that if our special needs programs at did not exist, these students and others each year would not have received a Jewish education, would not have become bar or bat mitzvah, and certainly would not have continued through to Confirmation.”
“This is a process. There is more to inclusion than just creating the right programs. Don’t get me wrong. Creating appropriate programs is valuable and necessary. But it is equally as important to change the climate of a congregation. Do not stop with the school. Once these families come through your doors, help them to feel welcome at services and at temple programs. Find meaningful ways to involve everyone in your community.”
“A child must not be penalized as a Jew simply because of a different pattern of learning and functioning. A child may have a learning disability, but we must not disable that student as a Jew as well.” ~ excerpt from A Question in Search of an Answer.
So, have we come far enough?
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