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Shelly Christensen Joins RespectAbility To Lead Faith Inclusion To New Heights

Shelly Christensen smiling headshot

Shelly Christensen

Hello Members of the RespectAbility Faith Inclusion Family,

When was the last time you started something new? Was it a new job, a new relationship, or a new stage of your life? Did a new opportunity come into your life unexpectedly?

A month ago, I was happily running my consulting business, working on a new book, and collaborating with colleagues in my Jewish and interfaith work.

And then RespectAbility called me. Would I be interested in talking about the new Director of Faith Inclusion position? The small still voice inside of me called out, “yes!” My practical mind, however, suggested that I think about what a new job would mean for me and for my family, and for the work I have done for over 20 years. I never imagined I would work full time for another organization again.

That small still voice was insistent. “This is bashert,” it said. “Follow the process and get on with it!” I listened to myself, and, just a few weeks later, here I am!

This is my first week at RespectAbility. I am excited to sustain and expand our Jewish work, while building on the sturdy foundation, established by Matan Koch and the team at RespectAbility, to deliver on the promise of our strategic plan. The plan calls for the Faith Inclusion Department to be part of the growing interfaith disability inclusion field, where I have been privileged to participate for some time. I am involved in the leadership of several interfaith organizations including the Institute on Theology and Disability and the Religion and Spirituality Network of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

I am grateful to work with our dedicated donor partners to strengthen inclusive practices, advocacy, and collaboration. I offer special thanks to the Diane and Gilford Glazer Foundation and the David Berg Foundation, for their support in the creation of my full-time role, as well as to the other Jewish funding partners that empower RespectAbility to provide the leadership that strengthens the Jewish people through innovation, collaboration, and targeted resources.

Now that my new work computer is set up, and my email is live, it’s time to dig in and get to work.

As we get started, I want to offer two enduring thoughts that have inspired me as an innovator and leader over the years. I hope you will appreciate them!

“No one does this alone.”

Success in ensuring that people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them can flourish is only achieved when people are engaged in their own decision making. Listening to understand rather than listening to respond is a modest shift in building relationships that thrive.

“A Sense of Belonging.”

Sharon Palay taught me about belonging.

When we met over twenty years ago, Sharon had arrived to live in Minneapolis some fourteen years earlier. She moved from her hometown in North Dakota because she wanted to be part of a much larger Jewish community, one that would be accessible and supportive of her participation. Sharon lives with cerebral palsy. She is a wheelchair user.

Sharon began to search for a synagogue to call home when she moved to Minneapolis. She left voice mails that were never returned. If she did reach a person, she was told, “Sorry, we don’t have people like you here.” And then they hung up.

Sharon persisted for fourteen years. She joined the Jewish Community Center and got involved. But her dream of joining a synagogue continued to elude her.

Then we met. As a Jew with a disability, the parent of a Jewish child with a disability, and a professional in the field, I knew immediately I wanted to join Sharon in her quest. She knew what synagogue she wanted to join. With me as her sidekick, she met with the Rabbi, and some of the staff, sharing her goals with them. That day, Sharon finally joined her synagogue.

The first time we met I asked Sharon, “What is important to you in your Jewish life?” She looked right at me and gave the answer she had harbored for so long. She said, “All I’ve ever wanted is to belong.”

Belonging is the heart of inclusion. Belonging is universal. It is what we all want in our lives.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Shelly Christensen (she/her/hers)
Director of Faith Inclusion, RespectAbility
[email protected]

Meet the Author

Shelly Christensen

Shelly Christensen is the Senior Director of Faith Inclusion and Belonging at RespectAbility.

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