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‘Build Me a House for All People’: JUF asks community for input in all-new Synagogue Inclusion Project

JUF asks community for input in all-new Synagogue Inclusion Project

When her son Danny was younger, Jodi Newmark remembers even the simple act of going to synagogue could be nerve-wracking.

How is Danny going to behave?  She would worry. How will people react?

Concerns like these might ring true for the parent of any young child - especially at long programs with lots of sitting still. But for Jodi, whose son has autism, the struggle was heightened, and often events specifically aimed at children still presented hurdles.

"You might have a wonderful community Hannukah event where most kids would enjoy the dancing and the songs," she said. "But for kids like Danny, that sensory stimulation might be too much."

That's why today, Jodi, whose son is now a young adult, works tirelessly to build support for families of kids with disabilities in the Jewish community. As the director of the Encompass program at Jewish Child and Family Services, she played a key role in launching the all-new Chicago Synagogue Inclusion Project - a year-long collaborative effort by Encompass and JUF's Synagogue Federation Commission to support Chicago-area synagogues in building inclusive communities.

"Beit Knesset, the Hebrew term for synagogue, literally means a place for all to enter," said Rabbi Michael Schwab, of North Shore Synagogue Beth El, who co-chairs JUF's Synagogue Federation Commission along with JUF Board Member Marc Roth. "Synagogue life should be accessible to all."

To coordinate the project - which will begin with a large-scale community survey seeking input on current needs ( ) - JUF has engaged national inclusion specialist Ed Frim of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

"What we're trying to do is create a culture where inclusion just happens naturally - where we see people with disabilities as people, and naturally do whatever it takes to make them feel part of the community," said Frim. "We want to get to a place where it doesn't even have to be called 'inclusion' because people just get it. What we're really talking about is creating community."

The initiative - which is funded by JUF's Breakthrough Fund and administered by JCFS - officially kicked off on Tuesday, Oct. 20th, with a community event at Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette featuring Jay and Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports a multitude of inclusion efforts in the larger Jewish community.

 "We come to this issue from a civil rights perspective," said Jay Ruderman. "People with disabilities have the right to be included in all aspects of our society. We need to speak out loudly and clearly and tell them and their families that they're welcome."

"Inclusion is a mindset," added Shira Ruderman. "We have to advocate for a change from charity to justice."

More conversation than lecture, the Oct. 20 th event was designed as an opportunity for lay, rabbinic, and professional leaders in Chicago's synagogue community to provide input, helping initiative organizers identify needs and structure the process. Event participants were also encouraged to take the survey ( ) and share it with their networks.

"We need to do a needs assessment for the community and engage people with this before we dive in and start providing programs," said Frim. "It's all about getting everyone involved in the conversation."

"We hope this will be a starting point for a sustainable effort toward educating, sharing and creating awareness on how to more seamlessly incorporate those with special needs into daily synagogue life," added Roth.

The next round of community meetings are slated for this fall. 

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