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Shabbat Smile By Shelly Christensen

Shelly Christensen smiling

Shelly Christensen

For my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples. Isaiah 56:7

The great disability rights advocate, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, z’l’ said, “We don’t welcome people with disabilities because they have disabilities. We welcome them because they are people.”

Becoming a house of prayer for all peoples involves much more than an open door. As I was writing my new book, From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, I wondered if there was more to this verse that might help people understand how important belonging is to people.

Synagogues often turn to Isaiah 56:7 which reads, in part, “my house shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples.” I noticed that in all of the conversations and planning, synagogues and community organizations were focused on the process of HOW to be inclusive, but rarely considered asking people with disabilities how they want to feel – the critical sense of belonging—where their hopes, dreams, needs, and talents become central to “inclusion.”

Becoming a house of prayer for all peoples as an aspiration, not a means to an end.

Was there more to Isaiah 56:7 that could provide the transformational understanding of belonging and inclusion that Jewish institutions could embrace?

The answer is yes!

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

This is G-d’s definition of inclusion.

Everyone is valued. Everyone belongs. And if someone is left out of this wonderful place—the Jewish community—they may be longing to belong.

Belonging happens when each person is valued and contributes, where strengths and gifts are acknowledged and fostered. This is the WHY. When all of us, as individuals, meet a person who lives with a disability, we must see the spark of the Divine Image, not their disability.

Becoming a more inclusive congregation starts with your own understanding of what it means to belong. From that vantage point, you gain a clearer perspective of what many people with disabilities want in their lives. You also learn that disability is never a reason to exclude someone from feeling that they belong.

As you start to think about belonging, recognize that you are not creating a new program or a “congregation” for people with disabilities. You are doing what you do best—welcoming people and supporting them to belong. How does anyone feel welcome in your community?

Most importantly, treat people with disabilities the same way you treat anyone else – as an individual who gets to determine how s/he wishes to be involved in the congregation. Then work with each individual to achieve that outcome.

To close by rephrasing Rabbi Landsberg’s wise words, may our Jewish community coalesce and commit to “welcome all our people with disabilities simply because they are our people.”

And this, my fellow travelers, is what makes a house of prayer for all people.


Shelly Christensen, MA FAAIDD is a pioneer in the faith community disability inclusion movement. She is an international speaker and consultant to numerous Jewish and other faith-based organizations. Shelly’s newest book, From Longing to Belonging–A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, is a resource for all faith-based organizations to enhance and encourage participation and inclusion for each and every person. Shelly co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in 2009 and serves as its organizer, providing resources, the annual JDAIM Guide, and guidance to Jewish communities. Shelly directed the award-winning Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities in Minneapolis for 13 years before founding her consulting group Inclusion Innovations.

In our weekly Shabbat Smiles, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Shabbat Smile are those of the guest contributor.

The Shabbat Smile is curated and edited by Debbie Fink, RespectAbility’s Director of Community Outreach and Impact and Vivian Bass, RespectAbility Executive Committee Board Member.

Meet the Author

Debbie Fink
Debbie Fink

Debbie Fink is Director of Community Outreach & Impact for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. In addition to this role, she was Project Director for the unprecedented Women’s Disability Leadership, Inclusion & Advocacy Series; and is responsible for RespectAbility’s Volunteer Corps and Jewish Inclusion Project. Ms. Fink brings more than 15 years of diverse leadership experience in public health, education and arts programming to serve RespectAbility’s mission. Fink has a lifetime commitment to enabling people with disabilities to have a better future and is passionate about the constructive impact volunteers can make in the world. To reach her, email DebbieF@respectability.org.

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