Synagogues and agencies commit to inclusivity this month and beyond

Local synagogues and agencies prepare for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and an inclusive future ahead.

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Cantor Steven Stoehr (at right), of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, singing with Bradley Kent at the synagogue’s annual Chocolate Seder for people with disabilities.

This year, for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, Chicago-area synagogues and organizations are coming together to build an inclusive community for people of all abilities.

Creating an inclusive space involves more than simply having people with disabilities in the room. Many physical, communicative, and attitudinal obstacles can stand between people with disabilities and full inclusion, which "makes it possible for all people to participate, rejoice, worship, learn, find comfort, and solace in times of need, and contribute to the community," according to Shelly Christensen's new book From Longing to Belonging .

This book was provided to synagogues as part of a three-year commitment to advance synagogue inclusion throughout the Chicago area. Synagogues and agencies have worked with Encompass, administered by JUF, to learn about the issues at hand, and create a practical plan going forward. These efforts were co-led by Encompass and JUF's Synagogue Federation Commission and funded by a JUF Breakthrough grant.  Encompass works on behalf of agency partners including Jewish Child and Family Services (which includes JVS Chicago), Keshet, Libenu, Yachad, and JCC Chicago, to expand Jewish community-based services available to adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

"Our work in the first year was dedicated to research and engagement so that we could better understand barriers to inclusion," including congregational and community surveys and focus groups,  said Encompass Director Jodi Newmark. The second year built upon lessons learned from the research and focused on continued engagement and education, including workshops and a cohort to share ideas, resources, and areas to improve.

Now, in the third year, synagogues are putting their lessons to work through a series of projects designed to improve inclusion in a concrete way. Fourteen congregations representing each denomination and from various geographical areas received mini-grants from JUF to implement these projects. The proposals were reviewed by a committee of professionals and lay leaders. "This process has been incredibly rewarding, as it affirms that community efforts to advance disabilities inclusion and accessibility at Chicagoland synagogues over the past three years have been effective and fruitful," said Tracy More, Vice President of JUF's Community Outreach & Engagement department.

The efforts include physical accommodations like ramps and chair lifts; training for staff, teachers, volunteers, and ushers; "inclusion carts" filled with supplies to help people with various disabilities participate in synagogue life; adapted worship and spiritual programming like sensory-friendly services; and more.

In addition to the grants, Newmark said, "JUF and Encompass have launched an endowment fund to meet the social service needs of Jewish adults with disabilities, and we are continuing our efforts to enhance inclusion in area synagogues and congregations, enabling and inspiring our houses of worship to be more welcoming for people with disabilities and any others who have felt left out or isolated."

Along with the longer-term projects, organizations around Chicago are planning events during February to educate local Chicagoans about inclusion. These include Keshet webinars and workshops for professionals, awareness activities for students and families, and much more. Some students will even attend Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, where professionals and lay leaders gather in Washington, D.C. to educate lawmakers about issues important to the disability community.

All of these efforts are working towards a common goal. "Inclusion is about striving to see what is possible and discovering and learning what might allow each person to contribute," Newmark said. "In doing so, we create the opportunity for relationships that are based on mutual respect. We honor each person's civil right to participate and contribute, and we see every person made in the divine image of God."

"Through this work," she added, "we not only enhance the lives of people living with disabilities, we enrich and strengthen our Jewish community." 

For more information about Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month programming in Chicago, contact Jodi Newmark at or your local synagogue.


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