Comedy, Disability, and the Inclusive Synagogue: An ELI Talk
Pam Schuller is my hero.
She’s not just my hero because she’s one of the outstanding Reform Jewish youth professionals who works day and night to connect with so many of teens and congregations in NFTY’s Garden Empire Region (which includes central and northern New Jersey and New York’s Rockland and Orange counties).
She’s not just my hero because she dressed as a peach at NFTY Convention, dancing and sharing a great schtick.
No, Pam is my hero and my teacher because of her deep and profound commitment to strengthening our communities through helping us be truly welcoming, inviting and inclusive.
Pam is my hero because she understands, through personal experience, that our communities are stronger when they are diverse, accepting, and embracing of all of their members.
I hope you will take 12 minutes to watch Pam’s recently released ELI Talk, “I am Here; Hear Me Bark: Comedy, Disability, and the Inclusive Synagogue.” Then, read the interview with her and share in our pride in all that she does for her community, for the Reform Movement, for the Jewish people, and beyond.
What was one defining moment for you that steered you into inclusion work?
Pam: One moment I didn’t mention in my ELI talk stands out. In eighth grade religious school, I was making loud noises from Tourette’s. The teacher was extremely frustrated and was (understandably) having a hard time teaching with the disruption, so she asked me to leave. When I got up to leave, another student said something like, “She can stay. We’re used to her Tourette’s.”
The teacher went back to teaching. Moments later, my noises got bad again, and she asked me to leave. This time, she was more frustrated, but yet again, my peers stood up for me. A third time this happened, and the teacher raised her voice and threatened to quit, clearly at a breaking point. Not wanting to cause any issues, I left the room with my head down.
To my surprise, the entire class followed me in support.
I have never again questioned the ideas that kids and teens can make a real difference. I don’t remember the name of that teacher, but I can tell you the names of every student in that class. That day could have been the worst, but I remember it as one of the best. When I work with kids and teens to create their inclusive communities, I have no doubt that they can and will make a positive and lasting difference.
You could have turned away from Judaism. What made you decide to make this your life work?
For a while, I did give up on being Jewish. I felt like there wasn’t a place for me. What I knew was that I loved Jewish summer camp and felt completely at home and free to be myself at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute, the Reform Movement’s summer camp in Zionsville, IN. I remember having long conversations with a very patient camp faculty member, Rabbi Sandford Kopnick. With him, I questioned if I should be Jewish – and later how to be Jewish – when I still felt like the community outside of camp didn’t want me to be a part of it.
But I was ready to be connected. If not for Jewish summer camp, I don’t think I would be Jewish today. I remember the way that being at camp made me feel, and I want to do my best to give those opportunities and connections to as many other kids as possible.
Stand-up comedy is another passion of yours. How do improv and stand-up play a role in your life?
I am 4’7” and I have Tourette’s; sometimes I joke that genetics made me a stand-up comic. In all honesty, comedy and improv make me a better person.
I grew up with people constantly staring at me, asking questions, and sometimes laughing. I had a favorite teacher who got me to try improvisational theater. After it she said, “You’re so afraid of people staring at you in public, but when you’re on stage, you embrace it. How can you begin to embrace life in the same way?”
From that moment, I started to be Ok with people staring at me. Sometimes in response, I say something funny; sometimes I use it as a teaching moment; sometimes I let it go. Just like in an improv show, I live in the moment.
To this day, stand-up comedy is my outlet. In fact, just last week I found my Tourette’s getting a bit worse than usual. My first thought was, “I should probably do stand-up tonight and schedule a neurologist appointment.” I have realized that to best support myself, I need both of those things – equally.
What three tips would you give to help make a community more inclusive?
- It all starts with the mindset! A congregation who has buy-in in creating an inclusive community is a congregation that will make real change. One person can’t do it all; invest in community buy-in.
- Be OK with not knowing the answers. I hear people struggling with talking about inclusion because they don’t know the correct language. That’s OK. Nobody has it perfect! The language changes all the time. When we go into something with good intentions, we’re open to feedback and change both in ourselves and in our communities.
- Ask questions and talk to families. I use the “tell me about” method. When a teen wants to join a youth program, and I am working to learn more about that child to set them up for success, I often ask questions that start with, “Tell me about…” My goal is not to get a diagnosis but to learn about that individual and their family. The more I know, the more we are a team. The more we are a team, the more we can set that teen and family up for success. I remind people that once you have met one person with Tourette’s, you have not met all people with Tourette’s. The same goes for any diagnosis, special interest, or passion. If you have met one painter, you have not met all painters. The more we get to know the person, the more we know all of the ways that they add to our community.
Reform professionals, lay leaders, youth, clergy, educators and congregants are invited to use the study sessions and resources at www.disbabilitiesinclusion.org to develop additional skills, strategies and understanding to make possible the full participation of people with disabilities in every area of congregational life. The Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center is made possible by a partnership between the URJ and the Ruderman Family Foundation.