How Can You Tell if Your Community is Inclusive?

Have you ever had a teen look at you with that look of “duh” on his or her face? You know, the look that says, “Why are we even having this conversation? I know it all already!” The look that’s usually mixed with that subtle (or not so subtle) hint of adolescent arrogance that is intended to make you feel just a little inferior for even having opened the conversation.

I love teens. I mean I really love them. They think they know everything, but deep down know they have so much more to learn. They think they are invincible, but are afraid to ever admit they feel vulnerable. I love them. And I love their angst.

So when I got a room full of “duh”, I couldn't have been happier.

Clearing a Path for Inclusion

Making room for inclusion is often just about using good sense.

Clearing a path for inclusion, Removing the Stumbling Block

Empowering Teens to be Inclusive of People with Disabilities

NFTY teens studying disability inclusion, Removing the Stumbling Block

Two of the things I am most passionate about in my professional life are disability inclusion and Jewish teens. Can you begin to imagine my excitement when these two things come together?

It happened! Not only did I have the good fortune of presenting a disability inclusion workshop at the NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) Convention in Atlanta, Georgia; it was to a standing-room only group of teens. We should follow their lead – they are ready to make change!

First, we explored some definitions of inclusion:

Define inclusion in three words or less, Removing the Stumbling Block
Read more about this activity here: Define Inclusion in Three Words or Less

Then we explored the Jewish imperative as to WHY we must be inclusive (despite not being held to the same legal obligations as secular organizations). These teens blew me away with their thoughtful and varied responses to an activity based on Jewish texts:

I love leading sessions like this. It is truly a thrill to empower our future leaders to take these conversations home and make real change in their communities.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out the one aspect that made this workshop stand out from all the others I have done. This time my co-presenter was a high school senior from my own congregation, Max Friedman. (I love how he introduces himself, by the way: “Yes, we have the same last name. No, we aren’t related. But [since she runs my religious school] she's like my second mother because she helped raise me.)

I’m deeply proud of our congregation for its ongoing commitment to inclusion. We are a community that recognizes that inclusion is a part of who we are and that being inclusive must be a seamless and natural part of everything we do. And yet even as I know this, experiencing it first hand is a joy. There is no small amount of pride in knowing that I helped to teach this value to such a poised young man who is now empowered to teach it to others. 

Way to go, Max. You've done us all proud!

Define Inclusion in Three Words or Less

Lack of universal definition of inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

I often begin workshops for Educators to make their classrooms and schools more inclusive with the following request: Define inclusion in three words or less. 

Here are some responses:
Not so simple to implement
Future of Judaism
Not always appropriate
Kindness and support
Essential to figure it out
Good intentions, uneven outcomes
Kavod and Kavanah- respect and intention
It takes a village
True community
Together happily
Meeting multiple needs
Understanding assumptions
Impact on others
b’zelem Elohim
Really, really important

This is my starting point for three reasons: 
1. To get a sense of where these educators were (are) in their thinking about this issue.
2. To frame our conversation.
3. To recognize the real challenge we face as there is no universal definition of inclusion.

The lack of a universal definition of inclusion places the obligation on individual school districts to determine what they will or will not do to include students with disabilities. And while they are legally obligated to accommodate all students, accommodation isn’t inclusion, and there is tremendous variation from state to state and district to district. 

It’s gets even more complicated for us in Jewish education. There are no legal mandates binding us to be inclusive – and yet we know that we have a moral obligation to include every learner. Just look at the list above.   

Our obligation and our challenge is to figure out how to successfully include every learner meaningfully in the short amount of time we have with them. It's possible. No one has to have all the answers, we just need to know who to ask for help. 

**Colleagues have chimed in on social media with their three word definitions of inclusion: 
Together we're better
Tent opened wide
Acceptance for all

And then I led a workshop (with a teen from my congregation) for a standing-room only group of Jewish teens:

Inclusion in 3 words or less, Removing the Stumbling Block

Let's keep the conversation going. How would you define inclusion in three words or less?


Inclusion is Hard Work, But Worth It!

Say yes and mean it, Removing the Stumbling Block - Lisa Friedman

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 regular blogger, I have written a handful of articles offering concrete, practical advice such as Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make and Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive.

But I’d be lying if I said that you’d be all set if you just read and followed the advice in one of these articles. Even if I told you the exact steps that my congregation followed, you can’t just wrap our process up with a bow, plunk it down into your community and say, “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. Inclusion is a funny thing, really. When it is “done right”, it’s not something to talk about. It just is. When a community is inclusive, anyone who wants to participate can, to whatever extent he or she desires. Period. There’s no need for fanfare, no self-congratulatory pats on the back and no reason to advertise your accomplishments, because you are just a community doing what a community should do; welcoming everyone.

But inclusion, particularly inclusion of people with disabilities, is not always happening in the Jewish world; at least not naturally, comfortably and universally. And so, I will share one piece of solid, tried & true advice that I believe has been the single most powerful secret to the success of my congregation. Say yes.

Say yes because far too many have said no. Far too many still say no. Some “get around” to yes with a lot of pushing and prodding, but that can leave everyone involved with lingering frustrations and a sense of wariness.

Say Yes; Removing the Stumbling Block, Lisa Friedman
When you say, “Yes, I can meet your needs…please help me to understand how to do that,” you will build trust and enable your constituents to recognize that everyone is 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 you can set the stage for honest and trusting dialogues. It means that when something truly is not possible, there can be a calm and realistic conversation.

We are well into that time in the Jewish year where congregations will dust off their brochures and ramp up their advertising. There will be talk of “reaching the unaffiliated” alongside plans for membership drives, promotions and open houses. In my opinion, far too many congregations promote themselves as “warm, welcoming and inclusive.” Too 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 communities 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, that it is part of who they are. Someday (hopefully) inclusion will just be. Until then…

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Love People for Who They Are

Love people for who they are; Removing the Stumbling Block, ability, inclusion

Love people for who they are, instead of judging them for what they’re not.

Recognize the ability rather than “fixing” the disability.

Cultivate the “able” rather than blaming the label.

Love me for who I am rather than who you wish I might be.

Ben Azzai taught: “Despise no one and call nothing useless. For there is no thing that does not have its place and no person whose hour does not come.” Pirkei Avot 4:3


Inclusion is a Verb

Ok, maybe I’m splitting hairs here a little. I can hear the grammar police screaming, “No, include is a verb, inclusion is a noun.” And they are right, grammatically.

Inclusion is a verb; Removing the Stumbling Block

But if we are going to get to the heart of what it means to include others, we need to think of inclusion as a verb. Because it will not matter, in the end, what we say, if it’s not backed up by what we do.


Inclusion happens when people actively include others. 

Think behavior, authentic conversations, genuine and meaningful interactions. Inclusion is about helping people feel comfortable enough to be who they truly are in your presence. And the more comfortable people feel, the easier it will be to include others who are different.


Inclusion is a conscious action. 

We must choose to include. We have to engage in behavior that lets the other person in. Not just allows that person to sit on the sidelines and watch, but really lets them in. And if we have to change the game a little along the way, so be it. That’s inclusion.

How do I do it, you ask?

Inclusion is NOT Social Action

Inclusion is NOT Social Action; Removing the Stumbling Block

I feel very strongly about the notion that while all of our programs, classrooms, and worship opportunities should be inclusive, inclusion itself is not a program. It’s not a one-time workshop or training session. Inclusion is an attitude, it is something that is just naturally woven into the fabric of what we do. At least it should be.

I was reminded of something significant that I have learned from one of my mentors in the world of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion. Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Advisor on Disability Issues at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, taught that "Inclusion is NOT social action." And yet, all too often, congregations do not know where to "put" their conversations (if they are even having them!) about inclusion, so they fit them under the umbrella of social action. 

There is a distinct problem with this.  

By definition, social action stems from the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. There is no doubt that we all need to work together to bring real and lasting change to our world, particularly around the conversation of inclusion. But typically, in congregational life, social action is the term we use to describe the "projects" that benefit others. We do not "do" inclusion "for" people with disabilities. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how everything we would have done anyway, can be inclusive. See the difference??

Need more?

Preparing food for your local shelter = social action.
Planting a garden as a sustainable food source = social action.

Inviting residents of a local group home to Shabbat dinner, NOT social action.

Hosting a bake sale to raise money for Special Olympics = social action.
Attending the Special Olympics to cheer for a member of your congregation, NOT social action.

Inclusion as social action perpetuates stereotypes; Removing the Stumbling Block

Thinking of inclusion as a function of your social action committee perpetuates stereotypes and devalues the significance of any effort you might otherwise bring forward.

So have the conversations. Invite individuals with disabilities to be a part of those conversations. And then maybe together you can all plan a social action event.

I appreciate that the editors at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism cross-posted this article.

Understanding Dyslexia - Practical Strategies for Jewish Classrooms

Learning differences are NOT definiciencies; Removing the Stumbling Block

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “Dyslexia is the name for specific learning disabilities in reading… Children and adults with dyslexia simply have a neurological disorder that causes their brains to process and interpret information differently.”

Dyslexia is NOT; Removing the Stumbling Block

From Edutopia, “Dyslexia is real, occurring in up to 20 percent of the population. That means there is a student in every classroom, in every neighborhood, and in every U.S. school. It also means that every classroom teacher has the opportunity to positively change the life of a student with dyslexia by taking the time to understand what it is and provide accommodations for accessing information that the student is capable of learning through alternate formats.”

When given the appropriate opportunities and support, most students with dyslexia learn to read and write successfully. What’s more, dyslexia itself is NOT an indication of intellectual capacity. And yet, sadly, the place where dyslexics are most often misunderstood is in school.

One of the most powerful motivational speakers on this topic, Jonathan Mooney, shares his own experiences as a dyslexic writer and activist who did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. He went on to graduate from Brown University and a holds an honors degree in English Literature. When he speaks, Jonathan strives to have his audiences understand that it is our own systems and structures that limit those with dyslexia and other disabilities. Read more in Our Children Aren’t Broken.

When we break out of our typical molds of expectation, we will see individuals with dyslexia thrive intellectually and go on to careers in fields such as politics, law, science, entertainment and even education.

I am sure that many heads nodded along with the information above. And yet, while completely true, this is where supplemental religious schools get tripped up. Our teachers encounter the notion of “making accommodations” and run scared. They say things like, “If she can’t read English well, how can I possibly teach her Hebrew?” or “You can’t make accommodations when you only see the kids for two hours a week,” and worse: “Making the kinds of accommodations he needs just takes too much time.”
So how do we do it?

Four practical strategies for accommodating students with dyslexia in a religious school classroom:
  • Enlarge the font – Such manipulations are easier than ever before with the digital resources at our fingertips. But don’t be afraid to go “old school” and enlarge the content on a written page using a good ole’ copy machine.
    Reading Focus Card; Removing the Stumbling Block
  • Minimize other distractions on the page – Again, many digital readers have the built in ability to do this, but you can create your own of any size by cutting a “word (or sentence) shaped hole” in the center of a piece of cardstock. This image is one example. Clicking the image will take you the item on Amazon. Such a tool is most effective when customized to the individual student.
  • Color coding – Color coding, especially in Hebrew, can help with the recall of vowel sounds and/or to distinguish “look alike” letters.
  • Remove time limits – Just as it sounds, students with dyslexia feel anxious and pressure when expected to read at the pace of their peers. Allow students to read at their own pace.
Remember, every student is different and no two students with dyslexia (or any other disability) will learn in the same way. It is important to get to know your students well and tailor strategies to their specific needs. When we move away from viewing learning differences as deficiencies, we can find ways to allow each and every student in our classrooms and communities to thrive.

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Moving Toward a Culture of Inclusion

Inclusion requires partners; Removing the Stumbling Block

For those who are struggling to make their place of worship more inclusive:

What advice would you give a professional or lay person in a congregation who wishes to spearhead such an effort?

It’s ok to start small, just start somewhere! 

I wrote a blog post called Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive. I believe that to make genuine strides toward increased inclusion you must find partners. None of us can do this work on our own. We can start the conversation, but to do the work and do it well, we need partners and support. I also advise congregations to start with an existing need and let your efforts grow from there. This can be the launch pad to creating a broader inclusive culture.

What Is Normal?

Trying to be normal; Maya Angelou; Removing the Stumbling Block

What is normal?

According to, normal is defined as "conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural." But really, normal is arbitrary; what is "normal" for you is not necessarily "normal" for me.

Look around. Each one of us is different. People come in all shapes and sizes. No two exactly the same. From Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5: "A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical.  But the holy one, blessed by God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique." We are different by design. So isn't each of us "normal" in our own way?

Striving for the arbitrary "normal" seems to me a waste of time and energy. I think Maya Angelou has it right, "If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be."

Don't worry about being "normal". Be amazing.

Welcome to Jewish Disability Awareness Month and JDAMblogs!

Jewish Disability Awareness Month, JDAMblogs, Removing the Stumbling Block
Today marks the first day of February and the official start of the 7th annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month. JDAM is designed to be a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

But I have to be honest. I struggle with the concept of disability awareness. When we look around us we can readily notice that people come in all shapes and sizes, each one of us different than every other. I just do not think that we need people to become more aware of disabilities, but rather to learn how to be genuinely accepting of one another’s differences. This is why the JDAM tagline makes sense to me – FROM Awareness to Inclusion.

For me, the key distinction this month is not to raise awareness of the fact that, yeah, there are Jews with disabilities, but rather that many of those Jews with disabilities are not yet meaningfully included in synagogue and Jewish organizational life. The value of this month lies in raising the awareness that there is so much more we can and should be doing to include those with disabilities in our Jewish communities.

I will be doing my best to blog each day during the month of February in honor of JDAM. You can read more hereabout this initiative. I hope to hear many new voices.

At the bottom of this post you will find a place to link up your blog posts and articles. This will allow readers to find one another’s posts, spread the word about their own and generally serve as an online gathering space for JDAM blogging efforts. Feel free to come back often and link each of your JDAMblogs posts.

Tag every post with #JDAMblogs on social media so we can find and share posts. I encourage you to tweet at me and tag me on Facebook and I will share your content. (#JDAM15 is the other hashtag being used for general JDAM information, resources and events.)

As a Jewish Special Educator, I realize that the vague nature of “join me in blogging” might be overwhelming for some. While you are free to blog on anything that relates to disability, accessibility, inclusion, etc., some may appreciate prompts to get their creative juices flowing:

JDAMblogs; Removing the Stumbling Block
And if writing is “not your thing”, share a photo or artwork or a quote or a video. Honor your own expressive style and do what is most comfortable and most accessible for you.  Don’t shy away from sharing your voice!

Together we can move the Jewish world from awareness to inclusion!

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