What I have found most useful is that the word “special needs” is truly expansive. Everyday and everywhere, people face challenges, overcome obstacles, and can benefit from special accommodations.
Mikey Hess Webber is a first-year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who is doing an internship with Jewish Learning Venture’s “Whole Community Inclusion” initiative, which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. WCI Director Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer interviewed Mikey about her interest in disability inclusion.
GKM: It has been amazing to have you work with me as a rabbinical intern for Whole Community Inclusion. Tell me about why you wanted to learn more about disability inclusion and Jewish community?
MHW: As I see it, inclusion is the acknowledgement, through word and deed, that ALL people are equally important. Each person, regardless of their lifestyle, their challenges, and their identities, is equally deserving of a beautifully immersive life and opportunities to grow into their best self. This being said, as I focus on disability inclusion within the Jewish community, I am learning that inclusion extends far beyond disability awareness—it is a human issue and it is MY issue. Until we have built a community in which all people are counted and considered, we have not reached our fullest potential.
I wanted to immerse myself in the conversation. I wanted to build a vocabulary and sharpen my skills in order to understand the challenges (hidden and not so hidden) that people with special needs meet when trying to live rich, Jewish lives. What does life in the Jewish community look like for people with special needs? How are we, as a community, serving and supporting people with unique challenges? Where is there room to grow?
As an emerging rabbi, I accept it as my responsibility to look deeply at where we are now and to chart a course toward where we want to be. Through this internship, I wanted to learn how to hold space for the process of growth and increasing awareness. As I form as a rabbi, I want to feel equipped to call on the Jewish community, and people at large, to be more mindful and to step up in empathy and compassion.
GKM: One of the projects that you helped me with this fall was editing Jewish values–based lesson plans about disability awareness. Can you describe the lessons and how teachers can use them?
MHW: The lessons are a valuable resource because they teach kids inclusion and empathy at an early age. Although we created them to be used during Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, really, they can be used anytime. We worked hard to create lesson plans that meet kids where they are in terms of Jewish learning and development. We introduced Jewish values (i.e., b’tzelem elohim and v’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha) to help support this learning within a Jewish framework. The lessons push students to think about what it feels like when we are not included and when we feel different from those around us. They give space for classes to brainstorm, together, ways to step up and be present for their peers and to build bridges across differences. It is our individual uniqueness that makes the world so beautiful, after all.
Depending on the time constraints, each of the lesson plans can easily be adjusted in length. Each has supplemental activities and prompts that can be added or used as follow-up activities. I hope that our Jewish educators will use the lessons to help facilitate deeper understanding and increased empathy in the classrooms, in the school, and in the world.
Here is a link to the lesson plans:
GKM: Based on your experience as a teacher in Jewish schools, why do you think it’s important to include disability awareness lessons?
MHW: Many Hebrew schools have not yet matched the public school model of systematically accommodating special needs (i.e., aids, counselors, 504 plans, IEPs). What I experienced as a teacher is that highly capable students were falling through the cracks because their unique needs were not made known in a sufficient way. It happened several times that I only learned about a student’s special needs after behavioral issues arose. This oversight left my ENTIRE class underserved.
Because disability awareness and inclusion were not part of the classroom conversation, the students did not have the toolkit for appreciating the unique skills, perspectives, and challenges of their classmates with special needs. Because compassion and empathy were not part of the conversation, some students reacted to the differences and behavioral issues in frustration and impatience.
However, I also saw that students have a stunning capacity for acceptance and adaptation. When the teacher and the class were equipped with the knowledge and tools to accommodate different learning styles, the class diversity transformed from a roadblock into an asset. So when special needs and special accommodations are raised early and when the entire classroom is engaged in a conversation around inclusion and acceptance the learning experience can grow into one of great understanding.
GKM: You have done a lot of reading and learning this fall about disability inclusion issues. What do you think other rabbis-in-training should know about people with disabilities?
MHW: What I have found most useful is that the word “special needs” is truly expansive. Everyday and everywhere, people face challenges, overcome obstacles, and can benefit from special accommodations. There are so many more things that connect us than divide us. With this acknowledgment, we should be doing our best to build bridges and to develop strategies to support and raise up everyone in our community. It is so important to approach each person with Lit. Kindness It is said in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that the world stands on three things: Torah (learning), Avodah (worship), and Gemilut Hasidim (acts of kindness). and with the openness to see differences as assets instead of divisions.
GKM: What kind of work do you imagine yourself doing someday? What will you take away from your internship that will inform your work?
MHW: I am only at the beginning of my journey… it is too soon to know for sure. I feel very pulled toward campus work AND interfaith work. Regardless of where I land as a rabbi, the skills that I am nourishing at WCI will absolutely be integrated into my rabbinate. I am learning the nuance of interpersonal relationships and the value of meeting people where they are without judgment.
In a more logistical sense, I am now better equipped to look at programming, liturgy, and community building through a more inclusive lens. What voices are being heard and which voices are getting missed? Who are we serving well and who can we serve better? Are we holding space for the multitude of unique needs and perspectives that combine to make our community colorful and dynamic?