Extending a welcome to all, ‘beyond the chairs’

Extending a welcome to all, ‘beyond the chairs’

WAE Center, shuls develop curricula to teach inclusion

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

One student at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel conveyed the concept of inclusion through clasped hands.     
One student at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel conveyed the concept of inclusion through clasped hands.     

How do you teach inclusion in a Jewish setting? That’s the question at the heart of a project that has children dancing to the Sh’ma, learning from artists with disabilities, and creating artwork that conveys a welcome to all.

The idea is to generate curricula that any religious school can use to teach inclusion, said Monica Schneider-Brewer, who is spearheading the effort for the WAE (Wellness, Arts, Enrichment) Center, where she is special projects coordinator. The expressive arts learning center is part of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest, a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

The project is called “Beyond Chairs of Inclusion”; it refers to last year’s WAE Center exhibit of decorated chairs representing the notion that everyone is entitled to a seat at the table. 

The initiative is being funded with a one-year $12,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ in partnership with Adath Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Morris Plains, and the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. Both independently incorporated the “Chairs of Inclusion” exhibit into their schools’ curriculum last year. The grant, which began in July 2015, runs through June 2016.

Together, the synagogues are developing and pre-testing curricula for children from first through seventh grades, using a combination of art forms to convey inclusion as a Jewish value.

The synagogues’ religious school directors — Sharey Tefilo-Israel’s Mindy Schreff and Adath Shalom’s Charlotte Frank — created the educational programs. 

Students have already participated in three of four arts workshops at Adath Shalom, each one focused on a single art form — dance, song, and spoken word. The last, in April, will be a theatrical rendition of the Passover story that incorporates, among other themes, Moses’ speech impediment. 

Frank told NJJN she has found that over time her students have begun seeing each other differently as a result of the workshops. “ They are learning that including everyone is better for creating their projects. They are learning to be accepting of each other.”

The younger students, she acknowledged, have had a harder time internalizing the lessons.

Meanwhile, at Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the curricula are grade-specific, with a varying number of sessions. So, for example, on a recent Sunday morning, second-graders were decorating and packing mishloah manot — Purim gift bags — to be delivered to residents of JESPY House, a program and residence in South Orange for adults with learning and developmental disabilities. It was the second of two family workshops on inclusion, with parents joining their children for both sessions.

The next evening, the temple’s seventh-graders took part in the culminating fourth workshop in their series. Having successively studied Jewish texts, spent time with WAE Center artists and clients, and considered what true inclusion feels like to the person with the disability, they set about creating their own artwork offering a message of welcome to all. 

Schneider-Brewer was interested, rather than disappointed, to observe that the second-graders at Sharey Tefilo, like the younger students at Adath Shalom, were not all grasping the lesson. She said that the curriculum “is an organic process, an evolution” of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. 

At the same time, as at Adath Shalom, the series worked well for older students at Sharey Tefilo-Israel. By the time the seventh-graders were finished, they had created images of open hands, rainbows, a heart with a welcome tag attached, a sun-filled woodland, and the word “inclusion” in big red letters. 

Observing the students’ immersion in thinking about and designing their artwork, Schneider-Brewer said, “That’s a reflection of their age and the fact that this is the fourth class in the series, so they’ve had a lot of buildup.” 

Schneider-Brewer, together with her grant team at WAE and the educators, will use the results to continue piloting and then formulate a final curriculum for publication. She thinks she has “a compelling case” to renew the grant for a second year for this purpose, she said.

As Sharey Tefilo-Israel seventh-grader Benji Rothman finished his pastel depiction of a sunny day in a forest, he described the impact the series has had on him. “I thought it was empowering to see how it does not matter if you’re disabled, because art is universal,” he said, referring to the session with WAE Center artists, including one who had trouble communicating verbally.

Benji added that because of the series, “I look at people in a different way now.”

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