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Faith Inclusion

Partner Spotlight: Tzedek DC

Logo for Tzedek DC. Tagline: Legal Help for People in Debt.Tzedek DC is an independent public interest center headquartered at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law that helps people with problems stemming from debt.

Tzedek DC’s official mission is “to safeguard the legal rights and financial health of DC residents with low incomes dealing with the often-devastating consequences of abusive debt collection practices and other consumer related issues.” The nonprofit seeks to “carry out that mission with the goal of addressing racial gaps in wealth and equality.” [continue reading…]

New Year

Erika Abbott smiling headshot seated on a couch

Erika Abbott

What page are we on? How much longer does the service last? Just as my body signaled for urgent rest, the Shofar blasted. “Truah!”

Those first notes remind me that I want to be heard by my Jewish community. Not just as someone who’s disabled, but as a Holy Fool who has the knowledge you seek.

What better way to command attention than to play the Shofar? Thus, I decided to learn to play the ritual musical instrument and set out to play in Rosh Hashana services. I wanted to be the female version of Itzak Perlman. As I fell asleep that night, I could hear the T’kiah calling my name. [continue reading…]

Five Questions to Ask Yourself When a Child’s Behavior Isn’t So Desirable: by Frankie Bagdade

1) Before you brainstorm solutions, STOP & ask a load of questions!

Remember, behavior is always communication. It is a way for kids, teens, and even adults to communicate an unmet need. For those with disabilities that impair their ability to communicate, this may be even more prevalent. Sometimes it’s unconscious and sometimes it’s conscious and a person with a disability can’t communicate it in a more effective way. A good example of this is a toddler meltdown, with our little ones who haven’t yet mastered their language skills. Older children and teens who have language deficits or who struggle labeling their emotions may also have frequent meltdowns. It’s important to reason that there is a WHY behind this behavior. [continue reading…]

In Memory of Barbara Newman

There are people in our lives who radiate the warmth and vitality of the sun when we’re in their presence. They are curious about everyone they meet, and they thrive on spreading their wisdom for the good of the world. When you meet one of these treasures, you feel blessed. And when they become your friend, as they do, you accept this gift with gratitude.

Headshot of Barbara Newman

Barbara Newman

Barbara Newman was someone in my life who was such a gift. We met in 2015 when Barb received the Henri Nouwen Award (renamed in 2021 as the Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award) given by the Religion and Spirituality Network of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Barb was an icon in Christian inclusive education including curriculum design, individual support and universal design for worship and education. She was a pioneer at the Christian Learning Center, which changed its name to All Belong just a few years ago. Barb was in such demand as a keynote speaker, engaging her audiences within seconds. Barb was profound and passionate as she pursued her life’s calling so that all people with disabilities would feel a sense of belonging in faith community life-like anyone else.

Barb and I struck up an easy friendship and talked about our respective theologies and religious practices supported disability and mental health inclusion. When I wrote my book, “From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community,” I sought Barb’s guidance and wisdom. [continue reading…]

In My Kehillah: by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

As we enter the end of summer (I know–it’s here!), those of us who work in education are turning our attention towards our classroom communities.

How do we create inclusive Jewish education communities? At Jewish Learning Venture, our Whole Community Inclusion initiative approaches inclusion holistically, engaging all stakeholders including the educators, the families, clergy and synagogue leaders and of course, the students themselves. We’ve implemented a number of successful programs to support inclusion, including: [continue reading…]

Equipping Congregations with Best Practices Discovered in Schools: by Victoria White of All Belong

Have you ever been at a staff meeting to plan an event, class, service, or project, and one voice spoke clearly at just the right moment: “Have we thought about how this will affect [insert name of particular individual or group you are thinking about]?” Perhaps you have been that voice. In seeking to include students with varied abilities in Christian schools, All Belong has pioneered inclusive education for forty years, and inclusive worship in congregations for ten years. There are many great ideas from the world of educational inclusion that can be used to welcome, include, and support full participation of people of all abilities in the body of Christ.

A green and pink puzzle pieceThe body of Christ is not complete without each piece. At All Belong, we use our infamous green-and-pink puzzle pieces, quoting 1 Corinthians 12, verse 18 (“God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted them to be.”) and verse 27 (“You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”) We even use a call-to-worship from Romans 15:7 (“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God,”) urging each one to “make Heaven a noisier place” by bringing praise to God through the acceptance of His children. All of His children, of all abilities. That means thinking about how worship and teaching practices will impact persons with varied abilities. It means thinking for neurodiverse people, people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental health disabilities, and sensory disabilities. [continue reading…]

Mentoring Students with Disabilities

Gabriella Helkowski headshot

Gabriella Helkowski

Being mentored as a student with a disability and mentoring students with disabilities has changed my life. I have always been the student with the learning disabilities and the one being helped when I struggled with various schoolwork and activities. I always wanted to have the same experiences as my classmates and mentors helped me be included. As a mentor to students with disabilities, I was able to help others be included, too.

In second grade, my classmates and I had to read an autobiography dressed up as our historical figure. Mine was Helen Keller. Parents came and watched our 3-minute talks. I was so anxious as I struggled to read and speak clearly during my presentation. My learning support teacher, Mrs. Lindenfelser, made sure that I would be able to be part of this important second grade event. Every day she set aside time to read with me —as painful as it was—and ensured that I understood. At the end of the book, we wrote and practiced what I was going to say about Helen Keller. That day I felt equal to my peers, a feeling that I had not felt before. [continue reading…]

Living and Learning a Language

Riccardo Ricciardi smiling headshotAfter two years of studying Hebrew, Jewish history, rituals, Torah, and Haftorah readings, the day I yearned for had finally arrived. I was invited to go to the bima (the raised platform in the synagogue from which the Torah is read and services led) to read the Torah for the first time…as an adult Bar Mitzvah. I got up from the pew and walked with the solemnity of a monarch, all regal. My kippah (the cap worn to fulfill the customary requirement that the head be covered) was my crown, my yad was my scepter, and my tallit (a fringed garment worn as a prayer shawl) was my coronation mantle.

“Queen Elizabeth, eat your heart out!”

When I got to the bima, the scroll was opened. I placed the tip of the yad on the passage. I did more than just read. I chanted every word like a Greek poet. I radiated. As I returned to my pew, people from both sides of the aisle stretched out their hands. [continue reading…]

The Annual September Letter to Teachers

Shelly Christensen smiling headshot

Shelly Christensen

Every September, I wrote a letter to our son Jacob’s teachers. I came across this letter while searching for something else in my overcrowded computer files and I’m glad I did. While Jacob is years past high school, past college, and is working in the IT sector, the letter stands the test of time.

As parents, we know a great deal about those young people who live with us around the clock. I began writing letters to teachers in middle and high school to introduce them to Jacob. Teachers were grateful for the introductions that helped smooth the path toward a good teacher-student-parent relationship. [continue reading…]

Ableism in Physical Education

McKenzie Stribich smiling headshot

McKenzie Stribich

As a disabled and neurodivergent student who grew up going to small Christian schools ill-equipped to serve students with disabilities, there are probably many ways in which I wasn’t given the accommodations I needed to excel—accommodations that may well have been met in other local schools. One that comes especially to mind is the realm of physical education (PE).

The first painful memory occurred in third grade. Standing and turning the jump rope for one of my peers, I was suddenly approached by the PE teacher, who told me in certain terms that I couldn’t participate in that activity anymore—her reason being it wasn’t safe. I remember being sidelined on the bench while doing my best to hide my tears from the teacher sitting next to me. [continue reading…]

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