An Accepting Community

by Donna Klein

I would describe myself as an advocate for people with disabilities.  My beliefs are strong that every individual no matter what, shouldn’t be limited by any disability. An individual should only be limited by his or her own preference with all options left on the table until his or her choice has been made.  By profession, I am an occupational therapist who has worked with adults and children with all types of disabilities.  I also have two children who are now teenagers.  Being a mother, a professional, and part of a wonderful synagogue community all came together for me about a year ago.

About two years ago, a very good friend—who I would describe as open, accepting, a gifted educator, and a loving mother to her children—and I were having dinner at a local restaurant with our teenagers.  Her oldest son, a very bright and an all-around “good soul,” described an event at our synagogue during which the special needs teens were “included” with the “typical” teens in an evening activity.  Her son’s descriptions of the night were filled with fear, confusion, and even close-mindedness that those “other kids” should not be around “typical” kids.  Surprised and upset, I did my best to explain to him that those “other kids” had feelings like him and why they might do some of the things they do.  After that evening I became quite determined to make a difference in our loving and “accepting” community, but I just did not know how.  I did know that as a Jewish community, we have an obligation to promote inclusion “for my house shall be a house of prayer for ALL people.” (Isaiah 56:5)

A very strange thing happened several months later.  The president of the temple approached me to find out if I wanted to co-chair the Inclusion Committee.  I was thrilled as this was the time to get involved to make a difference.  I had seen so many children of this generation not be accepting of others who are different.  In the news, this issue comes up quite often as so many children are bullied because they are different.  My thoughts raced; if any place or organization should mobilize to minimize the pain, suffering, exclusion and isolation of people with disabilities it should be our synagogue—our loving, “accepting” community.  So I took on the challenge.

I was very lucky to find a wonderful group of individuals to work with who had shared my passion.  Our committee has now worked together for just over a year and our accomplishments have only just begun.  We began with information gathering in an attempt to find out from the congregants how we can improve upon including all individuals—young and old alike.  We also met with the professional staff of our temple, including both rabbis and our cantor.  Our information gathering taught us that several wonderful programs have been going on for a long time; however, not everyone in the community knew about them.  We also discovered some wonderful new avenues to explore.

We have since worked with our building committee making sure all renovations to our building incorporate everyone’s needs; we have distributed emergency packets to our elderly; we have provided awareness night to our teens with a panel of special needs teens to answer questions; and we have placed ads in all our publications to increase awareness of our committee and our availability to all.  In the near future, we hope to have a puppet show about disabilities performed in our Early Childhood program.  We also look forward to providing large readers to our elderly members for ease of worship, and we can’t wait to provide parent education to increase awareness of disabilities.  Our community can become accepting in the truest sense of the word.  We can be the catalyst for change that makes a lasting different in the lives of children and adults.

Donna Klein is the co-chair of the Inclusion Committee at Congregation Kol Ami, White Plains, NY.

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