Build This World With Love

Jewish music is powerful. It can engage us and connect us to one another, deepening our relationships. Jewish music can connect us to our memories with a single note, evoking emotions while transporting us to another time and place.  Jewish music can help us to find our connection to God, touching our hearts and our souls.

The lyrics of our tradition have the power to teach, to inspire, to guide us to find that better part of ourselves waiting to be discovered.  

Olam Chesed Yibaneh (performed by Simone G., originally recorded by Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

For me, lyrics to convey the possibilities of inclusion: 

      “I will build this world with love,
       And you will build this world with love,
       And if we build this world with love, 
       Then God will build this world with love” (adapted from Psalm 89:3) 

Go Ahead, Be Nice. I Dare You!

It finally happened.  After 21 days of #BlogElul I've hit the wall.  It is nearly 9:00pm and I am sitting down at my computer for the first time all day.  What kept me away?  

My day started with a quick cup of coffee & a run followed by visiting not one, but two, new schools with my kids (my son begins Middle School and my daughter begins Intermediate School). The afternoon brought the completion of a consulting project, curriculum development with a teacher, and some administrative troubleshooting.  Bar mitzvah lessons for my son and a late dinner rounded out the evening, and here I am. 

And so, on the verge of saying something snarky, I plopped down on my couch and announced to my family that I hadn’t even thought about today’s #BlogElul prompt.  To my surprise, both my husband and daughter chimed in with ideas. 

My husband took dare and wanted to go in the direction of, “Forget ‘normal’, dare to be different.  It’s our differences that make us special.”  Wow.  I wasn’t actually sure he was even reading my blog.  (But credit where credit is due…he was instrumental in helping me to name it.)

And then my ten-year-old daughter blew me away.  She said, “I want to write about how kids treat kids with special needs. Will you put it on your blog?" Heck yeah!

“Sometimes there are people who are not very nice to other people.  Like some kids will make fun of or not hang out with kids with special needs. That is not nice. Just because someone’s different does not mean they don’t have the same interests as you. You could make some friends even if they learn differently or act differently. Go ahead, be nice. I dare you!”

And this just made my hectic day perfect.

Each Of Us Can Be An Agent Of Change

Whether you're considering a small change to one or two processes, or a system-wide change to an organization, it's common to feel uneasy and intimidated by the scale of the challenge. You know that the change needs to happen, but you don't really know how to go about delivering it. Where do you start? Whom do you involve? How do you see it through to the end?

When striving to make an organization fully inclusive, all too often, the questions themselves can seem overwhelming, the task insurmountable. But when you really think about it, each one of us is a change agent. We each have the power and the responsibility to affect those around us. Change is a process, and we have to start somewhere. Small steps CAN make a difference.

One of my favorite stories:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who took walks on the beach every morning. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. 
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

Moving a faith organization toward inclusion may seem like throwing back all the starfish on the beach; but go ahead, start with the ones you can reach.

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The Sidewalk Chalk Service

our Jewish values inform our actions and shape our choices in every aspect of our lives; Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the most significant aspects of Jewish Summer camp is the ability to live in Jewish time. Jewish professionals work hard year round to help our children integrate their Jewish and secular selves, gaining an understanding along the way that this is really one and the same. We are not Jewish (or Catholic or Muslim...) only when we go to synagogue or when we attend a Jewish program. Rather, our Jewish values can inform our actions and shape our choices in every aspect of our lives.

I believe that by sending our children to camp and giving them the opportunity to immerse fully in Jewish time, we better equip them to live Jewishly all the time. Prayer is an integral part of developing such an identity. What makes camp so special is that spirituality, prayer and worship are natural threads woven intentionally into the fabric of their day. Further, prayer is inherently inclusive despite the fact that not all worship settings or opportunities are. (I’d love to have a conversation with you about making your worship experiences more inclusive – it’s possible!)

Prayer at camp is also about experimenting, about moving away from what we think and expect prayer should be, and allowing ourselves to experience what prayer can be.

My good friend and colleague, Rabbi Rachel Ackerman and I developed what we call the Sidewalk Chalk service. Here, participants are encouraged to draw their reflections and thoughts while we recite and sing the words of our liturgy. It has become a unique, creative expression of prayer:

Participants wrote the names of those in their memories as we prepared to recite Kaddish.

Another good friend and colleague, Rabbi Ken Carr shared with us a beautiful reading. I hope that it may inspire you to think creatively about the prayer opportunities you may lead.

I had a box of colors —
Shining, bright, and bold.
I had a box of colors,
Some warm, some very cold.
I had no red for the blood of wounds.
I had no black for the orphans’ grief.
I had no white for dead faces and hands.
I had no yellow for burning sands.
But I had orange for the joy of life,
And I had green for buds and nests.
I had blue for bright, clear skies.
I had pink for dreams and rest.
I sat down
And painted

Reflecting on the Serenity Prayer to Make Change

As I read today’s #BlogElul prompt, I immediately found myself thinking about the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

While its universal nature has led, at times, to oversaturation and overuse, I think that the serenity prayer conveys a significant message for Elul.  (As a reminder, the Hebrew month of Elul, for Jews, is a time of introspection and reflection that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also the start of the High Holy Days. #BlogElul is an effort to reflect through writing.)

I work hard on recognizing those things which are truly out of my control.  It’s not easy.  Those can often be the things that frustrate me the most.  Learning to let them go and focus fully on the things that I can impact, on ways that I can make a difference, is an ongoing process for me.

Are there direct applications to the world of disability awareness, acceptance and inclusive practice?  Of course. 

Here’s one:
While we may not be able to change the way some people will speak about (or to) an individual with disabilities, we can change our response.  Despite the fact that we may feel frustrated, sad or downright angry, channeling that emotion and crafting a well-thought out response may help to educate the person who has been offensive.  Here is a great list of responses from the Friendship Circle Blog.

What other ways can you apply the Serenity Prayer to disability discourse and education?  Please share them here so that we can continue the conversation.

What’s Your Learning Style?

There is no doubt in my mind that EVERYONE has the ability to learn. 

We just each go about it in a different way.  From Proverbs, “Teach a child according to his/her own way,” but how do you discover a learner’s “way”?  I think it makes sense to think of a child’s “way” as his/her learning style.

Learning style is defined as an individual’s preferred mode of gaining knowledge. There are three basic learning styles that are most widely utilized; visual, auditory and kinesthetic.  However, four additional categories are also generally accepted; social, logical, verbal and solitary.  A reasonable overview can be found here. 


I know that I am primarily a visual learner.  How do I know this?  When one of my children yells down the stairs, “Hey mom, what does I-N-S-U-R-M-O-U-N-T-A-B-L-E mean?” I will usually reply, “Come down here…I need to see it.”  Similarly, when attending a lecture or a workshop, I take notes on what the presenter is saying.  For me, the act of writing (kinesthetic) and then being able to see the information in front of me helps me to retain what I have learned.

We all use every learning style, but we have dominance in certain areas.  As you saw above, I demonstrated a blend of two learning styles, despite first asserting my dominance as a visual learner. Further, our dominance is not fixed and can shift given the experience, and it is possible to learn or improve dominance in any given area.  Despite that, being in tune to your own learning style can help you select strategies that will enable you to find success.  There are a great many inventories available. I do not endorse any in particular, but know that if you Google “learning style inventory” you will come up with many options.

Finally, if you are a teacher, knowing your students’ learning styles will help you to shape lessons to meet their needs more effectively while helping students to understand their own learning styles will enable them to develop the skills of self-advocacy.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
 ~ Ignacio Estrada

Every Story Should Be Heard

Each day during the Jewish month of Elul (with the exception of Shabbat) it is traditional for the shofar (ram’s horn) to be blown. The sound of the shofar, Maimonides explains, is the call to teshuvah (returning to your true self). As we get closer & closer to the High Holy Days, we look back over the year and strive to recognize where we may have missed the mark. The sound of the shofar is the reminder to return to ourselves, to reflect on who we want to be and who we have yet to become.

Blowing the shofar symbolically challenges us to do the work of reflection and self-improvement necessary to reach the New Year with a whole heart.

Yet it is not enough to simply hear the sound of the shofar.    

We must truly listen. Each of us has a story, and to be heard, to be genuinely listened to, is to have our story validated. I challenge you to take it upon yourself to ensure that one more story is heard, because in doing so you can make inclusion a part of your life. Maybe your focus will be on inclusive language or maybe you will have an opportunity to bring someone with disabilities into the life of your congregation.  Maybe your focus will be on education or maybe you will help someone to make a spiritual connection.  Listen to the stories, they deserve to be heard.

“We, the one's who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen not as a disability, but as a person who has, and will continue to bloom. To be seen not only as a handicap, but as a well intact human being.” -- Robert M. Hensel

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When It’s Ok to Turn a Do Into a Don’t

Using "Do Statements" to shape positive behavior; Removing the Stumbling Block

I can’t honestly think of too many times when it's "ok" to turn a do into a don’t. Actually, it’s typically just the opposite, especially with children. When trying to help shape a child’s behavior or teach a child a value, it’s far more effective to use positive language. For example, instead of “don’t run”, it’s a better choice to say, “walk” (the do is implied, of course).  

I feel strongly that we should all try to use "do statements" in both parenting and in teaching.

Nonetheless, I will break from my own advice for a moment. Once you watch this video called "Don't Limit Me", I think you will understand why.


With thanks to Cindy Barclay of Surprising Treasures for bringing this special video to my attention.

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A Story of Jewish Summer Camp

There is, of course, the obvious direction that this prompt could take me in writing about inclusion and Jewish special needs education. 

But I think that #BlogElul is a little bit about pushing our boundaries; a challenge to reach beyond the obvious, to dig a little deeper and to hopefully stumble upon the potential for significant and meaningful reflection. So I would like to share a personal story.

Accept - A story of Jewish Summer Camp; Removing the Stumbling BlockThis week (and next) I have the good fortune to be serving on the faculty at URJ Camp Harlam. It is an opportunity unlike any other in my professional and personal life. It is challenging and it is rewarding. It is both exhausting and exhilarating. I love that I have this chance to build relationships with campers and staff, and I relish the possibility that I may impact, in some way, their Jewish lives. I am honored to accept this responsibility.

Inclusion Can Help Us to See Blessings in Disguise

Today, a story – The Cracked Pot:
A water bearer in Babylon had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole, which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master's house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. 

For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his master's house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection. 

After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. "I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you." 

"Why?" asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?" "I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts," the pot said. 

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, "As we return to the master's house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path." Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it up a bit. 

But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I put it to good use. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.

The moral of the story: Each of us has our own unique flaws. We're all cracked pots. In this world, nothing goes to waste. You may think, like the cracked pot, that you are inefficient or useless in certain areas of your life, but somehow these flaws can turn out to
be a blessing in disguise. 

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot - Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who makes creatures different.

What Does it Take to DO Inclusion?

I have said before that inclusion is not a program. And inclusion is not something that we do for people with disabilities.  Rather, inclusion is a mindset, an attitude, a way of thinking that opens doors to opportunities for meaningful engagement, contribution and belonging.

However, there is no question that we must act in order to make inclusion a reality in our synagogues. 

The first thought that came into my mind when I saw this prompt was the famous Nike slogan, “Just Do It”. I’ve been a part of many conversations where those involved lament the insurmountable barriers that prevent inclusion from happening.  I’ll be honest.  In most of those conversations what I most want to say is, “Really?  Have you tried?  No? Then just do it!”

Think of Nachshon.  When the Israelites, on their Exodus from Egypt, reached the sea, with Pharaoh’s army hot on their tail, they were convinced that all was for naught.  But Nachshon, knowing that to go back meant certain death, certain failure, chose instead to trust in God and walked forward into the sea.  And as the midrash goes, it wasn’t until the water was up over Nachson’s mouth and nose that the sea finally parted and the rest of the Israelites could follow and safely cross.

This is the kind of action that can make inclusion a reality. Nachshon needs a pair of Nike’s, because he is the epitome of Just Do It!

Now it is your turn.  Have faith and walk into the water. Take your first step toward inclusion.  The others will follow.

“Just Do It”

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How Do We Prepare For Inclusion?

Today marks the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the final month in the Jewish calendar before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  Elul is typically a month of spiritual reflection and renewal that leads us to the High Holy Days.

There is a really neat effort by a Reform rabbi named Phyllis Sommer called #BlogElul.  You can read more about it here.  Or here.  Basically it is one more way to tune in, reflect and prepare for the holy days ahead.  What I really like is that Phyllis has given us a topic, or a prompt, for each of the days of the month: 

The topic for #BlogElul 1 is Prepare. And I'm in; I want to do my best to blog every day as a way to personally prepare. But I also feel that it's important to stay true to my content. Therefore, each of my posts will have a reflection, some inspiration or a tip, technique or strategy related in some way to Jewish special needs education or inclusion, which I hope will allow me the opportunity to inspire others to think deeply or differently, while also allowing me the opportunity to stop, think and reflect as I prepare for the new year ahead.

Please join me in the journey.

#BlogElul 1 - Prepare
Preparation is critical in inclusion and special needs education.  Inclusion can only truly be successful with significant, intentional and mindful preparation.  For a religious school, there are many ways to accomplish intentional preparation. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:

1. Meet with both parent and student before the school year.  Set goals together.

2. Give identified students a tour of the religious school and the synagogue to become familiar with the spaces before school begins. And for returning students, bring them in to see their new classroom.

3. Provide inservice opportunities for faculty to learn more about working with students who have disabilities. 

4. Read. There are a ton of wonderful blogs, articles and books dedicated to the topic of inclusion.

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