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Better Together Conference Inspires Jewish Organizations to Take Action

On the final day of February’s Inclusion Awareness Month, Federation, HaMercaz, the BJE, and the Board of Rabbis convened professionals and lay leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish organizations for the Better Together Inclusion Conference. At the conference, people from schools, synagogues, camps, youth groups, advocacy and social services organizations brainstormed action steps to strengthen existing and implement new methods of inclusion within their institutions and the community. Keynote speaker and national expert on inclusion, Shelly Christensen moderated the discussion and called on participants to “facilitate meaningful participation by people with disabilities and their families and engage the community in the process.”

Jacob Artson, a leading advocate for people with special needs, shared his own experience navigating the Jewish community as a young adult with autism who communicates through typing. As we conclude February and Inclusion Awareness Month, we hope his words will inspire action to promote a more inclusive community not just in February but all year round.
Below is an excerpt from his speech at the conference:

Almost half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech…  Those biblical principles that Dr. King spoke of are Judaism’s contribution to the world.  But like America in the 1960’s, the Jewish community has forgotten that all of God’s creatures are made in God’s image.   We have been willing to settle for segregation.

So I have a dream too.  I have a dream that one day, in Jewish organizations  throughout the United States, wherever Jews gather for support and connection, autistic Jewish boys and girls will be able to join hands with typically developing Jewish boys and girls as sisters and brothers.   I have a dream that one day, I and my friends with autism will be judged not by our strange sensory responses, but by the content of our character.  I have a dream that one day I will be able to walk into any Jewish setting and no one will give me icy stares when I slip up and get too excited and noisy.   I have a dream that one day in our day schools, Jewish students with ADD and learning disabilities won’t politely be invited to leave to attend public schools and fed the canard that it is for their own good.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”   Like Dr. King, I have complete faith that it is within our power to rectify the isolation and pain felt by so many individuals with autism and their families. We have all the tools we need in our tradition and in our hearts.  All it takes is an attitude that all people are created in God’s image and it is our job to find the part of God hidden in each person.

Let me share with you three different experiences I have had that can set the stage for our discussion today.  For many years, my father has been leading services at Sinai Temple on the High Holidays. Over the years, the congregants have smiled at me and wished me Shana Tova even when I was too overwhelmed to even sit in Barad Hall and would sit on the floor in a little hallway outside. Now I can sit in the back of the room and enjoy the service along with the rest of the congregation.   When I am there, I also see two boys I know from other activities I have taken part in.  Those two boys always make a point of finding me during services so we can talk and catch up with each other.

Our synagogue, Ikar, has also been extremely inclusive.  After I gave the keynote speech at the last conference we had like this, Ikar invited me to be a scholar-in-residence one Shabbat and even paid me an honorarium.  It was such a great experience that our family joined the shul.  I attend the teen beit midrash, which meets twice a month to study about social justice issues.  Whenever we break into Hevruta, or study partners, someone always asks to be my hevruta.  And when we are not in class, the kids all say hi to me even though they are not getting community service credit for it.

Contrast these experiences with another experience I had recently.  I was participating in the Moses-Aaron Cooperative, a program where nonverbal autistic teens share their Torah. Several of the host synagogue’s teens had been selected to read the speeches written by the autistic kids at the presentation.  While we were in the gym waiting for the program to get started, some of those kids were shooting hoops.  My mom approached them and asked if I could join in.  They tolerated my shooting one basket and then went to the other side of the court to continue shooting baskets without me.

We’re here today to begin the process of creating a roadmap for more inclusive communities.  But we do not want your pity.  As we create our roadmaps, let’s remember this is about making our synagogues and organizations open to all, and not just during inclusion awareness month.  People with disabilities can speak for themselves.  Invite them to do so.  Include them in your planning committees.  In your programs, make sure that you are including the entire spectrum, not just the high functioning individuals.   And remember that we all have our individual differences, just like people who don’t yet have special needs.  One-size-fits-all just won’t work.    

The defining story of our people is the Exodus story, and it was to that same story that King alluded in his famous concluding passage “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”  In his book Exodus and Revolution, Professor Michael Walzer writes that the enduring appeal of the Exodus story lies in the following truth:
•    first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
•    second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land,
•    and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.  There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching. 

In the 16 years since I was diagnosed with autism, the Jewish community has made strides toward inclusion, but we still have a very long path ahead of us.  I hope you will join together and march with me toward the day when all Jews can stand together at Mt. Sinai as one people.  

Jacob Artson is a young adult who communicates by typing. He speaks to groups and writes about inclusion in the Jewish community. He attends Emerson Academy where he is completing his high school diploma.

Shelly Christensen, MA, is a leading author, speaker and practitioner of inclusion of people with disabilities. She authored The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, the handbook used by Jewish organizations across the U.S and the founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month. She is also the Founder and CEO of Inclusion Innovations LLC.


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