JCCNS Inclusion Camp champions diversity

Shelley A. Sackett, Journal correspondent

 

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When Marty Schneer arrived in Marblehead in 2013 to take over as executive director of the JCCNS, one of the first people he met was Marcy Yellin, whose 32-year-old son, Jacob, has special needs and was employed at the JCCNS.

 

She told Schneer that the community lacked an inclusion camp. He asked her what she would like to see. Within months, Schneer formed a committee with Yellin and a few others, including Special Education teacher Melissa Caplan. By the following summer, the JCCNS Inclusion Camp was up and running with 20 campers and Caplan at the helm as director.

 

This year the Inclusion Camp has 40 campers, a staff of 25, and a long waiting list. Specially trained staff work with children to integrate them into Kindercamp, Simchah classic camps and the Simchah CIT program.

 

There are no criteria for admission. “We take inclusion pretty seriously, so how could we make criteria that excludes some?” Caplan asked. The only reason a camper might not receive support is if that individual already tried camp and the staff knows it is unable to keep that child of their peers safe.

 

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Special needs campers participate in the same activities as their chronological peers, including aquatics and sports. “The goal of the camp is not only to provide services to a population who until now was not included, but also to break down the boundaries that often exist when people are not exposed to differences at an early age,” Caplan said.

 

Campers range in age from 2.9 months to teenagers. Staff includes teens and young adults who themselves have disabilities, filling an additional community need. “These individuals come to work and receive a paycheck just like their non-disabled peers,” Caplan said.

 

Inclusion campers and staff cope with a variety of disabilities that include developmental delays, intellectual impairments, autism, cerebral palsy, blindness, social/emotional disabilities, muscular dystrophy, down syndrome, seizure disorder and many more.

 

Most require on-on-one aids, which is expensive, and which is covered partially through private donations and organized fundraising. “We pride ourselves that the cost to attend camp is the same for all, whether you need a one-on-one aid or not,” Schneer said. “The underlying philosophical approach is that this is good for entire community of campers.”

 

“Marty believes in the need to support a neuro-diverse population, even though it costs the JCCNS a great deal,” Caplan added.

 

The term “neuro-diverse” means normal, natural variation in human cognition. It embodies the idea that those who are non-neuro typical can live their lives as they are with accommodations and modifications instead of being forced to conform to “normal.”

 

Caplan’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in multiple disabilities and a Masters degree in Early Intervention. She has worked in Roxbury, Newton and Marblehead and currently teaches special education at the Clarke School in Swampscott. “I believe wholeheartedly in the spirit of inclusion. It is a passion of mine,” she said.

 

During the rest of the year, the JCCNS runs adaptive/inclusion programs. Caplan works “very part time” in the year-round Inclusion Program, which last year added inclusive basketball and lacrosse clinics, Sunday family drumming circle and an IEP (individual educational program) support clinic for families. The program already has adaptive swim and gym programs.

 

Next year, Caplan would love to expand the sports clinics and start a lacrosse league and a Special Olympics swim team. “We have tons of great ideas and committed staff and eager participants. The only setback is funding,” she said.

 

In the meantime, Yellin sees the fruits of her vision every Friday as she walks down the hill to the JCCNS where she plays music. “I see wheelchairs amongst kids playing and all kinds of people in one space. It’s a beautiful sight,” she said.

For Two Local Synagogues, Inclusion Is a Priority

 

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Transition to Work graduates.

 

 

Congregation Shirat Hayam (CSH) in Swampscott and Temple Sinai in Marblehead were among the dozens of synagogues that applied for Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RISP) grants in 2016. They both were selected and on May 23, they will be among the nine 2017 Cohort of RISP Congregational Partners welcomed and recognized at the annual CJP “Celebrating Inclusion” event.

 

“We are very excited to be working with two synagogues on the North Shore this year and are very interested in regional collaboration,” said Molly Silver, who manages the partnership between the CJP and RISP. “Being inclusive is a sacred and holy imperative of Jews and this project helps synagogues realize their own unique vision of inclusion.”

 

For over a decade, the Ruderman Family Foundation philanthropic mission has emphasized disability advocacy and inclusion. Its newest initiative, RISP, awards $5,000 grants to synagogues in the Greater Boston and North Shore communities to help fund programs that ensure that all people, including those with profound disabilities, are able to participate in congregational activities.

 

RISP started as a pilot program in 2013 with just three Boston synagogues.

 

Sharon Shapiro is the daughter of founder Morton E. Ruderman and a Ruderman Family Foundation trustee. As Community Liaison, she is in charge of all projects in the greater Boston and North Shore areas, including RISP.

 

“There is a group of people who are not coming to synagogue because they feel there’s nothing there for them,” she said. “RISP raises awareness for inclusion in general, but specifically for people with disabilities because that is the focus of our foundation.”

 

Silver was particularly struck by Temple Sinai’s and CSH’s strategic and thoughtful Inclusion Action Plans and ambitious goals. “What stood out about their applications was a deep and profound desire among both communities to be a “kehillah k’dosha”, a holy community that strives to welcome everyone who walks through their doors.

 

Rabbi Michael Ragozin hopes CSH will become fully inclusive of children with disabilities and their families. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of rejection that families, seeking to raise their children in a Jewish community, families whose children will thrive in a Torah environment, have experienced,” he said.

 

Beyond the letter of the grant, he also hopes CSH will become even more inclusive of interfaith families, the LGBTQ community, households with varied incomes, and individuals experiencing mental health issues.

 

“Inclusion is a clarion call to honor the uniqueness of each one of us,” he said.

Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez agrees. “To be able to reach and kiss the mezuzah, to be able to drink water or go to the restroom, to have access to the bimah and the Torah, to be able to read and hear the services are things we might take for granted,” he said, noting many others in the community might not be as fortunate.

 

Both synagogues have formed Inclusion Committees with ambitious and concrete goals and plans for the coming year. Amanda Clayman and Michele Tamaren co-chair CSH’s 14-member “Shir Lanu: One Song – Every Voice” committee. Deborah Shelkan Remis chairs Temple Sinai’s nine-member committee.

 

Remis pointed to the network already operating for congregants who need rides or meals, have hearing assisted devices or need large print siddurim. “This is just the beginning,” she said.

 

AT CSH, Hebrew School director Janice Knight leads Torah study focused on inclusion as a Jewish value and has invited trainers to work with staff and teens through “Gateways: Access to Jewish Education”. CSH greeters have received training on the use of inclusive language. An accessibility handout itemizes available inclusion support.

 

“We believe inclusion is holy, just and divine. Everyone is welcome and must feel welcome at Shirat Hayam,” Clayman said.

 

Ruderman trustee Shapiro remembers about five or six years ago when someone from CSH with an adult son with disabilities was trying desperately to make changes at the synagogue. “I think it took this project and other families coming forward to make the wok really impactful in the synagogue top down and bottom up,” she said.

 

That “someone” is Marcy Yellin, whose 32-year-old son Jacob is a regular at CSH events and services. “I’m thrilled for Shirat Hayam to be included in the Ruderman Foundation grant. I have great respect for all the things the Foundation does. It’s wonderful to see that people are taking disabilities seriously and mobilizing together to support our most vulnerable, especially in the Jewish world,” she said.

 

She paused for a moment and then added with a smile, “we have waited a very long time for this.”

Salem Artist Tapped as New ArcWorks Director

 

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Lifelong artist Susan Dodge loves her new position as Director of ArcWorks Community Center in Peabody. “The job I am doing now is just such a reward. I smile everyday. I’m happy to go to work. And I get to do so many things I really love, like curating shows, working with artists and envisioning what the next project will be,” the Salem resident said during an interview at The Bridge at 211 in Salem, where she currently has a piece on exhibit.

 

The Northeast Arc (NeArc) is a not-for-profit organization that helps children and adults with disabilities become full participants in the community. ArcWorks is its inclusive art center, which serves artists and viewers of all talents, skills, interests and backgrounds and provides artistic opportunity for people with and without disabilities.

 

In her role as its director, Dodge is responsible for scheduling gallery shows at both the art center and Breaking Grounds, the coffee shop in Peabody that NeArc runs. She also creates curriculum and teaches various art classes during the day to NeArc clients and in the evening to community members.

 

“I am happily tired at the end of the day,” Dodge said with a smile.

 

Tim Brown, Dodge’s supervisor and NeArc’s Director of Innovation and Strategy, couldn’t be more pleased to have Dodge on board.

 

“I have been a personal fan of Susan’s art for many years,” he said. “What I did not know was how each step in her personal journey fit so nicely into the model we wanted to develop.”

 

Dodge’s impressive resumé includes teaching art; a commission for 48 paintings at the famed Palm Beach, Florida property, The Breakers; a seven-year stint as Project Manager at a web design firm; a business career in sales and marketing at The Hawthorne Hotel; curating many art shows, and owning her own pottery studio, The Artful Dodger, through which she sold murals, tiles and signature pottery throughout the U.S. and the Virgin Islands.

 

She earned a B.F.A from Massachusetts College of Art and returned to school at age 48 for a certificate in digital graphic design.

 

According to Brown, the diversity of Dodge’s experience was exactly what NeArc hoped a new director bring to the position — the abilities both to develop an engaging class structure using a variety of mediums, and to manage the Gallery Shows and Shop within the ArcWorks program.

 

“Within her first four months at NeArc, she has curated five different gallery shows. Each show brought new artists and viewers, expanding our reach and recognition within the art community,” he said.

Prior to her current position, Dodge has always taught private art classes to children. This is her first time working with students with disabilities, but she sees more similarities than differences.

 

“I look at people with disabilities as just people. Creating art in so many ways is about honing a technique and seeing things. Everyone has their own vision of how they see things. Basically, making art is just translating that vision into an object or putting it on a canvas or a paper,” she said.

 

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Susan Dodge is working with Polyvios Christoforos on a painting that was ultimately featured in a collection of greeting cards handed out at the Ne-Arc “An Evening of Changing Lives Dinner and Fashion Show” on April 29

 

She works with 25-year-old Polyvios Christoforos twice a week. “He is a prolific painter. We work together really well,” she said. Christoforos’ work was featured in a collection of greeting cards handed out at NeArc’s “An Evening of Changing Lives Dinner and Fashion Show” on April 29.

 

“When you teach people with disabilities, you have to be really present, and compassionate and listen really well,” Dodge said, noting that many of her clients have speech-related issues. “I have developed different ways I work with people” depending on their needs.

 

Over the years and from her teaching experiences in the U.S. and abroad, Dodge has noticed a consistent and common thread among all her students: they share an eagerness to create something they can be proud of.

 

“In my core, I believe that everyone is an artist. It’s just a matter of letting yourself do it without judging what you’re doing,” she said.

 

For more information, visit ne-arc.org.

 

Every Month Should Be Inclusion Month

There is nothing inherently Jewish nor unique about disabilities. Nor is February a month when inclusion is more important than any other month. Nonetheless, setting aside a specific time each year to draw awareness to those who live with all kinds of challenges has a fundamental place in Judaism.


Started by a cadre of Jewish special education colleagues who promoted inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, Jewish Disabilities Month is observed nationally.

Some of our greatest Torah figures lived with disabilities. Isaac was blind. Jacob was lame, and Moses had such a severe speaking impediment that he argued with God about whether he was the right choice to lead the Israelites.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their limitations, these leaders rose above their physical restrictions and achieved their great goals for the Jewish people. Imagine if they had been excluded from their communities because they were considered “disabled.”

Twenty-first century Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families are often not as fortunate as our Biblical heroes. Many describe feeling left out of their Jewish communities, where pejorative attitudes and inadequate physical accommodations still exist. Some describe uncomfortable situations where they end up leaving a synagogue service after their children behaved in a way deemed unacceptable.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, inclusion is “the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular classes” so that each student has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Jewish inclusion, by extension, may mean removing barriers that contribute to others feeling isolated, unwelcome and unaccepted. After all, who among us (especially as we age) doesn’t have a “disability” of some sort? How many of us wear glasses, walk with assistance or hear with the help of a device?

Our Torah commands, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14). Jewish tradition also teaches us that tikkun olam (repair the world) is one of our greatest virtues and most important duties.

Removing stumbling blocks that keep some from participating in a full Jewish life is a good place to start. Our Jewish community should strive to prevent anyone from feeling separated or left out. Jewish Disabilities Month offers the platform to do so.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 12, 2015.