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Faith Inclusion

Seeking Community Support for Mental Health

Rebecca Woolfe smiling headshotDuring this Mental Health Awareness month, I’ve been reflecting on how faith communities address mental health needs and become more inclusive in this area. While there still is a need for more education and decreasing stigma about mental health, it is encouraging to see more communities being willing to discuss these topics and offer ways to support people.

I have also realized that mental and emotional support even in a religious or spiritual framework can take many forms. It can be individual or group counseling, peer support, having a book study/discussion, connecting with others who have shared experience, or creating an education program.

When I moved overseas to Korea, one of the first things I did was to look for any Jewish community. Although I hadn’t been involved in a community back in New York, I somehow suddenly felt the need to connect with other Jewish people when I was so far from home. Finding a community means belonging to a group of people, and for Jewish people especially, there is an unspoken understanding and connection.

When I discovered Chabad, which had just newly started in Korea, there were Jews of many nationalities and religious levels, but everyone was welcome. The common thread was that we were all living in a foreign country and had to deal with adjusting to a new culture, unfamiliar customs, language issues, and not having support systems. In many ways, because we were such a small community, people got to know others and could develop relationships and support each other more. For myself, I felt most supported by being invited to Shabbat every week, joining women’s groups, and meeting individually with the rabbi’s wife for talking and learning. Later, some of my friends and I created our own Jewish group to support and include LBGTQ+ and intercultural couples/families who face many issues both in Jewish communities and in Korean society. [continue reading…]

Why Some People Don’t View Mental Health Disabilities As Disabilities

Ben Bond smiling headshot in front of a blurred background wearing a blue suit jacket.In the disability community, we know that mental health-related disabilities are disabilities. It still feels like the rest of the world has yet to catch up. As a person of faith myself who has mental health-related disabilities along with fellow family members, I have wondered why this identity disparity existed between mental health conditions and disability.

I believe a lot of it has to do with a continued investment in the mind-body separation. This concept has deep religious and philosophical origins that I would be happy to nerd out about with anyone over Zoom coffee sometime. The mind-body separation contends that the mind and the body are separate entities from one another. Many of us subconsciously buy into this philosophy whether we know it or not. We go to school to train our minds, not our bodies. We go to the gym to train our bodies but not our minds. The disability community has known from the beginning that this separation is simply not real. When many of us have a stressful day, it manifests as pain in our bodies. Or if we are having tremendous pain in our bodies, our mental health suffers. [continue reading…]

Praying Over Disabled Individuals Is a Complex “Kindness”

illustration of a person prayingBen Spangenberg is the Senior Manager of RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program. Ben was born with Spina Bifida in Long Beach, California in 1981. His mother had amniocentesis, but the test got switched and his development was seen to be within the ‘normal’ range. They did not confirm his diagnosis until his mother went into labor. Ben’s doctors immediately threw his parents suggestions on how to take care of a child with disabilities. Ben said, “The doctors firmly suggested that my parents leave me at the hospital so the state could take care of me. My parents said, ‘no way’ and raised me as much as possible like my brothers and sisters.” This was a common conversation between doctors and parents of children with spina bifida then.

According to Amy Kenny in her book “My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church,” 67% of people feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person. This manifests when a nondisabled person offers to help a disabled person, assuming disabled people cannot live independent lives.

Ben and a few of the Spring 2023 Fellows agreed to share their experiences when nondisabled people ask to pray over them. People often have good intentions, but this does not excuse the impact of this act on the person who is prayed over. Each person interviewed comes from a Christian background where one of the core teachings is that all individuals are created in God’s image and reflect the divine. [continue reading…]

“When You Go Through Deep Waters, I Will Be With You”

the sky at either sunrise or sunset. Text reads "When You Go Through Deep Waters, I Will Be With You"As the program manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities for 13 years, I was invited to speak about the program at numerous Jewish community events. I spoke about changing attitudes and fighting stigma to advance inclusion. Following many presentations, someone from the audience waited to speak to me, waiting in the back of the line. Their question was always the same. “Do you include people with mental illnesses in the inclusion program?”

I saw hope in their eyes. But the inclusion program focused solely on disabilities. I gently explained that mental health wasn’t part of the program’s purview. The hope of finding acceptance and spiritual support faded as they turned away, rejected by the Jewish community. Even the inclusion program excluded them.

The program excluded me, too. I am neurodivergent. I was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorder in my early 40s. These conditions have been a part of me my whole life. Once I began the process of understanding the diagnoses and working with mental health providers, I leaned into spirituality and my community, and found support and comfort there. [continue reading…]

Lessons Learned from Neil Jacobson

Neil Jacobson headshot in grayscaleNeil Jacobson may not have known, but he was my teacher.

Neil Jacobson was one of the earliest pioneers in Jewish disability inclusion and belonging. His grassroots advocacy and action in his own congregation became a call to action for other synagogues and Jewish organizations in the Reform movement and beyond. Neil’s influence and his teachings were infused with a love of Torah and the need to belong.

All of us at RespectAbility offer our condolences to the family and friends of this giant in the disability rights advocacy movement. Many remember Neil as one of the people featured in the film “Crip Camp.” I remember Neil from years ago when we volunteered for the nascent disability inclusion initiative of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Neil and I were members of a Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) disability inclusion task force established in the mid-2000s by Rabbi Richie Address. Neil was leading the Access Task Force at his congregation, Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. I was a member of a Reform congregation and was also leading a Jewish community-wide inclusion program. [continue reading…]

Remembering Neil Jacobson

Neil Jacobson sitting at his computer and smiling he has a beard and is wearing glasses grayscale photoI interviewed Neil and Denise Jacobson, following a Jewish community screening of the film, “Crip Camp.” They were featured in the film along with Neil’s childhood friend, Judy Heumann, of blessed memory.

Neil was a child of Shoah (Holocaust) survivors. Neil described his father as “the happiest, friendliest, most easy-going guy I have yet to meet. His attitude was that if he could survive the war, he was going to be happy.”

Neil loved life. His joy was contagious, rooted in a deep reverence for life and wonder at the miracle of survival. Neil’s love of life was clearly intertwined with his love of Judaism. The Torah tells us to choose life. [continue reading…]

Brushed Aside: By Denise Sherer Jacobson

Denise Jacobson smiling headshot

Denise Sherer Jacobson

The summer I was eight, I was sent to a sleep-away camp for the month of July. The girls slept in a big dormitory, and my bed was in the center aisle. I have only one other memory about the camp—just one incident that has stayed with me all these years: The time my bed wasn’t made!

I can’t recall why it didn’t get made during the day. But by the time we were ready to go to sleep at the end of a gusty, stormy day, a thick layer of soot and dust covered the white sheet. My counselor scowled when she pushed my wheelchair over to the bed and saw the filthy mess, annoyed that she had extra work to do. She began swiping the dirt over the bed’s edge, and I, trying to help, started to do the same.

“Stop it!” she reprimanded sharply. “Get your hands away now so I can clean this up!”

I recoiled, biting my lip to keep from crying. She hadn’t even seen me as capable of wanting to help. [continue reading…]

The Real Magic of Camp: by Jennifer Phillips, President and CEO of Keshet

Three girls with disabilities smile together at a Keshet camp

Photo Credit: Keshet

When I think of the meaning of “a community of belonging,” it is the community that Keshet has created, particularly at camp. Each summer I sit in the picnic grove at camp, and I look out at our camp community with hundreds of disabled and non-disabled campers and staff and get overwhelmed with emotions. The word that comes to mind is always “magical”—an experience and a privilege you can’t get anywhere else.

Every single day, I see children with and without disabilities participating together in rock climbing, zip lining, swimming, arts and crafts and all the other activities camp has to offer. It’s amazing to see kids who might not otherwise have this camp experience that others take for granted, and be able to grow, flourish and make lifelong friendships in the process. It’s a community where everyone is embraced and supported.

And as beautiful and magical as all that is, that isn’t even the real magic.

The real magic is Friday night Shabbat dinner when hundreds of campers are together singing and dancing. Then suddenly, one camper is overwhelmed by the loud singing and dancing and must go outside for a sensory break. At the same time, a few of her fellow campers follow her outside and create their own outdoor song session. This happens not because staff has told these other campers to go outside and be with their cabinmate, but rather something they want to do on their own. They understand that there are ways to make sure everyone is included and can enjoy Shabbat. [continue reading…]

Tips for Mental Health Support at Faith-Based Summer Camps

Illustration of a campsite in the woods with a fire and a tent. Text: Tips for Mental Health Support at Faith-Based Summer CampsFor both campers and staff, it is important to create an environment that supports everyone’s needs. Each person coming into the camp community should feel safe physically and emotionally. Here are some suggestions and resources for increasing the well-being of campers and staff:

  1. Offer staff training such as Youth Mental Health First Aid
  2. Hire mental health qualified professionals to give extra support for campers/staff (general staff should be advised to refer to qualified professionals when needed)
  3. Set staff up for success by sharing background information about each camper with them (including parents’ notes and suggestions on coping tools/strategies)
  4. Create quiet areas for campers and staff who need space or time to be alone
  5. Allow staff to have additional breaks during the day or evening; check in with staff and create an environment in which asking for help is encouraged
  6. Incorporate activities or programs with stress management, emotion management, and conflict management tools
  7. Teach tools for expressing emotions and listening to others (such as non-violent communication)

[continue reading…]

Faith Inclusion and Belonging Newsletter Intro for April 28, 2023

We at RespectAbility’s Faith Inclusion and Belonging department know firsthand the importance of faith-based summer camps for providing spiritual and community formation. One might believe the work of faith inclusion is limited to what we do in worship services together, but as we learned from our recent webinar with Tammy Besser and Sarah McKenney, what we do outside of worship is often just as important for faith inclusion.

I myself have been profoundly shaped as a disabled person of faith by summer camp. I was fortunate to attend Pilgrim Pines, a United Church of Christ (UCC) affiliated summer camp in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. Pilgrim Pines was one of the first places where I encountered full integration of disabled people in a community. The camp partnered with local care facilities to bring children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to camp. Disabled people are often segregated from the rest of society, so the opportunity to build lifelong friendships and spiritual connections year after year with fellow campers, both disabled and non-disabled, was transformative. [continue reading…]

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