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A teen learning community celebrates inclusion
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A teen learning community celebrates inclusion

Hannah Herbert, left, a student at the JTEENMW Learning Community, works with her shadow, Ellie Sandman.
Hannah Herbert, left, a student at the JTEENMW Learning Community, works with her shadow, Ellie Sandman.

Teens don’t really live on-line. They may touch there, but they only thrive when they interact in person with other teens. So when The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life opened its JTEENMW Learning Community to teens with special needs, we were delighted that two young people approached us immediately and are already participating with so many others on Sunday mornings.

The Partnership is one of several MetroWest agencies that provide a suite of services through a consortium called ABLE (Access, Belonging, Life Enrichment) with an aim towards inclusion of all people with special needs and their families within our MetroWest community.

Anna and Becca (not their real names) are accompanied to the JTEENMW Learning Community by their shadows, MetroWest teens who have been trained to support other teens like these girls in a variety of settings throughout the community.

The Hebrew word for shadow is “tzale,” a word connected to “tzelem,” image. It is through her work that the shadow truly appreciates the tzelem Elohim (image of God) invested in every human being. One of the Partnership’s signature initiatives is in Jewish Service Learning, working with teens to view their community service activities through a Jewish lens and reflecting on how this service enables them to grow as Jews.

Anna wanted very much to learn about her Jewish identity and to chart her own Jewish journey much the way her older sister who attended JTEENMW did, but given her situation there was no other program in the community able to accept her. Through an ABLE initiative, 10 MetroWest teens have been recruited and trained to act as shadows; one of them works with Anna every Sunday. Becca’s shadow is a graduate of JTEENMW herself who wanted to keep on learning. Now, the two of them are choosing their courses and learning together.

Rabbi Shmuel Greene, our director of Teen Initiatives, is leading a workshop with all of the ABLE shadows to imbue their holy work with Jewish values and to reflect on the impact that their work has not only on the teens they are assisting, but on the shadows themselves.

Inclusion is the nature of Jewish life. We do outreach and engage; in short, we want people to feel included in our Jewish community, a community like teenagers that only thrives when we interact in person; that calls for inclusion in a synagogue where a minyan is required, in a school where learning is a community endeavor, in a rally at the UN where the voice of the people is like the voice of God. Life is not on-line; life is in-person.

Of course, Jewish educators realize this as well, and so when ABLE suggested that the Partnership devote one of its Moreh Institute sessions to inclusion, we offered “A Special Look at Special Needs: Being Inclusive in Our Classrooms,” a five-part course. We committed to presenting this course if we had five registrants. Today 17 educators from early childhood, congregational, and day schools throughout the community are taking this course, enabling them to identify students with special needs and to modify instruction so that these students can be included in the classroom with their friends — and thrive.

The Partnership is also pleased to continue to offer a co-op service of special needs consultants who are available to MetroWest’s early childhood programs. Each year our consultants work with parents and teachers with an eye toward early identification and intervention, to keep every child in an inclusive environment where he or she can thrive, where his or her family will feel the support provided by their MetroWest Jewish community.

As a Jewish community we strive to be shalem — whole and united. One of our highest values, the word that leaves our lips during every conversation is “Shalom.” Colloquially we say it means “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” Only one word can connote these multiple meanings; it’s a word that at its roots means “complete, whole, inclusive.”

Shalom.

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