The Chicago Synagogue Inclusion Project, which is funded by a JUF Breakthrough Grant and administered by JUF's Synagogue Federation Commission in partnership with Encompass of the Jewish Child andFamily Services, recently completed a year-long research and planning process that aims to answer key questions about barriers to participation in synagogue life for individuals with disabilities and their families.
With 20 percent of the population (including the Jewish population) having some kind of disability-including everything from cognitive and emotional to physical-not having an effective inclusion approach alienates a significant percentage of the Jewish community and prevents congregations from gaining from the unique contributions of these potential members, according to experts.
" Ultimately, the goal is to use the research to develop tools and strategies for identifying the resources, mechanisms, and structures that would best foster a synagogue's ability and readiness to facilitate inclusion for the long-term," said Tracy More, associate vice president of Community Outreach and Engagement of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
A nationally recognized Inclusion and Outreach Specialist led the community outreach and engagement efforts and a Research Consultant developed the research instruments and data analysis efforts, according to More.
"The process of engaging with synagogues so broadly was unique. The way we triangulated with two surveys, meetings, and layering in other data like the Chicago population survey and JData was different than other communities. To our knowledge, no one has documented some of our findings. The approach was innovative because it engaged the full geographical and denominational spectrum of the Jewish community through one process of collective learning, coordinated study and strategic development in the complex synagogue space," continued More.
What the findings gleaned is that synagogues across Chicagoland are in different stages of readiness and are in major need of education and training, the development of strong networks and the utilization of outside resources before they are able to move closer to inclusion.
"Raising the issue across the community through individual conversations and basing all decision making on good data will lead to a much better knowledge of who is in need of services in the community and where there are gaps in a synagogue's ability to include people with disabilities," said Ed Frim, the nationally recognized inclusion and outreach specialist engaged to consult on this effort.
One significant finding is that "synagogue leaders rate inclusion efforts higher than household respondents."
"There is a gap between how well synagogues feel they are doing and how the people we spoke to feel about how well synagogues are support them in participating in synagogue life," said Frim.
Another finding is that those affected by disabilities feel invisible to synagogues-and this has affected their membership (or lack thereof), according to the study.
While many synagogues in Chicagoland are doing something to support people with disabilities, people in the community are not always aware of the supports available to them. Beyond this, programming that isolates those with disabilities-as opposed to including them-while often good intentioned, can be counterproductive.
As one participant of the survey said, "I don't want to be someone else's mitzvah project, I want to be doing mitzvahs."
"The fact is, those with disabilities have a right to contribute and they have an ability to contribute and be part of the community. Inclusion is a huge opportunity for people with disabilities to enrich congregations and for congregations to help them realize their potential," said Frim.
In addition to break-out grants to support inclusive programming, next steps for the project include a series of workshops led by nationally-recognized experts in synagogue inclusion open to all congregations throughout Chicagoland. A one-year Cohort of Practice consisting of up to 8 congregations is also available for those ready to take existing inclusion efforts to the next level.
The first program led by nationally recognized inclusion specialist Shelly Christensen takes place on Tuesday, Sept. 13,at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook.
For more information, visit http://juf.org/inclusion .
Read the report at www.juf.org/congregants/Congregations-Connections.aspx.
To apply to participate in the Cohort of Practice, contact Tracy More, JUF Associate Vice President of Community Outreach & Engagement (firstname.lastname@example.org or (773)765.3146).
2015-2016 Chicago Synagogue Inclusion Project Key finding:
1. Households touched by a disability report feeling invisible, left out or perceived as disruptive.
2. Congregations don't always know who has disabilities.
3. Perceptions of inclusion impacts synagogue membership.
4. Synagogue leaders rate inclusion efforts higher than household respondents.
5. Synagogues are inconsistent and ad-hoc in their approach and ability to be inclusive of individuals with disabilities and their families.
6. All synagogues state that they share inclusion as a value, and momentum exists to move these efforts forward, yet many do not know where and how to begin.
Survey respondent highlights: Households
*Almost 1,500 household respondents representing all areas of Metropolitan Chicago.
*56% were synagogue members.
* 30% of households had a person with a disability, with half of those between ages 23-64.
* Fifty synagogues responded to the survey; eight were Orthodox.
* Synagogues identify including children with disabilities and the elderly with physical disabilities as priorities.