All She Ever Wanted Was To Belong

This is a guest post by Shelly Christensen, MA, Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis. Shelly is also the author of the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a time to unite Jewish communities and organizations for the purpose of raising awareness and supporting meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Jewish life.

It is my hope that, in reading this (my final contribution on TC Jewfolk for Jewish Disability Awareness Month), you will gain understanding of the need for inclusion in our community.

Sharon was born with cerebral palsy, and has used a wheelchair nearly all her life. As a child, she was unable to go to synagogue unless her dad carried her up the many steps at the front of the building. Her Jewish education consisted mainly of family celebrations at home. When she was ready to go to school, no public school would take her. In order to provide for her education, she was sent to a Christian boarding school, where she received instruction in a faith that wasn’t her own.

Sharon and I met in 2001, when she became the first client of my program (the Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities). She was in her mid-40s and had moved to Minneapolis 14 years earlier from North Dakota.

Sharon decided to focus on exploring a synagogue that was building a new accessible building. A congregant who also used a wheelchair had advocated for what is now the most visible sign of inclusion — the only mode of access to the bimah — a ramp that everyone ascends to reach the Aron Kodesh.

Sharon’s presence has inspired and informed her congregation and her Jewish community. She is committed to raising awareness and working with the congregation’s professional staff and lay leadership to level the playing field for people with disabilities and their families. She is also a congregational leader, serving as the co-chair of the synagogue Inclusion Committee.

All she ever wanted was to belong, and three years ago Sharon celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

Last year for Rosh Hashanah, Sharon’s congregation sent all its members a bookmark that contains a poem she wrote when she was an adolescent:

Even though I have a disability
I’m a person like you
The only difference is I can’t do
All the things you do.

When I want to speak to you
I know sometimes
It may take a little longer
But
I have good things to say.

I know most things you know and
I feel
The way you feel
I love and laugh and dream and cry
My heart is just as real.

So if you get to know me
And if you really care
You’ll find
Though I have a disability
I have a lot to share.

Appreciate what makes each of us different. Let us welcome those who yearn to grasp the Torah and find comfort, joy, peace and community in our synagogues. Let us work together to honor the strengths and the gifts that all people have, regardless of their abilities, and find ways to support them so that they too may share in the richness of Judaism.

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For more information about Jewish Disability Awareness Month, or for a calendar of the month’s events, go to www.jfcsmpls.org.

Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS) offers information and resources to support Jews with disabilities and their families. The Inclusion Program coordinates community-wide efforts to raise awareness, provide consultation and help Jewish organizations understand how to overcome barriers to facilitate their meaningful participation and involvement for all people. For more information, contact Shelly at 952-542-4838 or schristensen@jfcsmpls.org.

JFCS also offers Caring Connections, a program that provides opportunities for Jewish adults with developmental disabilities to connect with their faith community and take part in Jewish life and learn about holidays and traditions. Caring Connections is a joint effort of JFCS, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, the St. Paul JCC, and the Sabes JCC.

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