Inclusion Month: Building Holy Community | Congregation Beth Am

Inclusion Month: Building Holy Community

Rabbi Miriam Philips, Director of Family Learning

While they were wandering in the desert and slowly figuring out their identity as a people, our Israelite ancestors learned how to build the ark that would hold the two tablets (the Ten Commandments -- those tablets). We read in Parshat Terumah, “Make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits in length...” (Exodus 25:10). Many woodworkers love acacia wood, and it is often grown commercially, because it is dense, sturdy and resists decay. My husband Danny and I received a beautiful turned acacia wood salad bowl for our wedding -- perhaps you also have a piece of usable art made out of acacia. Beautiful it may be, but the acacia tree that grows in the deserts of Israel and the Sinai is sinewy and bent. Its curved limbs could probably not have supplied a straight board of “two and a half cubits in length.” Instead, it would have been necessary to join many small pieces together to build the ark.

In other words, the ark that created a home for God’s word was crafted out of a multitude of small, unique pieces. I know no better metaphor for holy community, kehillah kedoshah.

February (when we read Parshat Terumah this year) is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, or as we’re calling it at Beth Am, “Inclusion Month.” Like the pieces out of which our ancestors crafted the ark, our community is diverse, filled with unique people, each with different gifts and needs. In the past, we’ve used February as an opportunity to raise awareness of the experiences of Jews with special needs who sometimes feel left out or even ostracized by their own community. This February, however, we are not only raising awareness: we are celebrating the strides we have made even as we try to move ourselves further down the path to becoming truly inclusive.

Let me give you an example of one of our successes in the area of inclusion. Paul is a young man in his early thirties who grew up at Beth Am. He also has developmental disabilities. Paul occasionally helps out during Sunday Program. Not long after I started working at Beth Am, I was asked to create a schedule for him for the upcoming Sunday. I felt ill-equipped to perform the task -- I didn’t know what Paul was capable of doing. Even after talking to both Paul and his mom, I worried that the activities my fellow educators and I came up with for him to do were not meaningful.

Meanwhile, we had identified another challenge: for some of our students, fire drills are very difficult. For a kid sensitive to noise, the siren is not just alarming, it’s overwhelming. For children who need consistent routine, fire drills are stressful.  

And then Nirit Zandman, our wonderful Inclusion Director, joined our staff at the beginning of 2017. Nirit suggested creating a Beth Am fire drill social story, a visual explanation of what to expect during a drill. Then Nirit recruited Paul to help by taking pictures for the social story. He spent last spring taking photographs, and this summer Nirit and I put together a social story, using Paul’s pictures, that teachers used with classes before our fire drill this fall.

Afterward, Paul’s mom, Susan, wrote to me, “He now knows he has given back to the Beth Am community.  His sense of being valued and his sense of pride in being able to help others at Beth Am is an immeasurable gift he has been given.”

Susan has her own story. She teaches in one of our programs, and last year she was one of the first teachers to ask Nirit to observe her classroom and give her feedback. Susan told me, “[Nirit] encouraged me to have my class (a class that provided me many challenges) move more, ...even before we get started in the morning. This helped my class [get]...  to the meaty content of the morning and [helped] me... convey what I was trying to share with them... [T]his year the students even helped create the movement routine, making them feel more connected to it... ‘A brain dance,’ as one student calls it.” Susan thought she was implementing changes to help particular students focus; she discovered that these changes helped all her students learn and built a shared sense of community at the same time. Through transformations like those in Susan’s class, I learned that “inclusion” is about much more than creating accommodations for those with disabilities; it’s about making the whole community stronger.

Why are we calling February “Inclusion Month” at Beth Am?  Because it is an opportunity to take stock of where we are in the pursuit of our goal, which is to become a place where all our members are included and valued ‒ those with diagnosed disabilities and special needs and those without. We’re striving to be a place where each person learns from and values the other. We hope that with the help of people like Nirit, Susan, Paul -- and you, we will be like the ark described in Parshat Terumah: a place where every piece fits, is supported by the pieces surrounding it and supports them in return.

We still have a lot of growing and learning to do before we become a fully inclusive community. But with the hard work of teachers, parents, clergy, staff and all our members, I believe we will get there. And as Pirkei Avot teaches us, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.”

Check out Inclusion Month events with Beth Am.

Congregation Beth Am
  • 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).