By Robin Davies-Small
Everyone wants to feel accepted for who they are and what they believe, feel and value. Most people look to belong, to be part of something larger than themselves, where there is a sense of community and “home”. Our synagogues and religious schools can and have provided a spiritual home for its members, a center where families can worship together and celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
However, for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, this can be particularly challenging. As is the experience of children with disabilities in school, differences become more apparent as the child grows and matures. Children are often not invited to birthday parties, or to Bar and Bar Mitzvahs. Approaches to inclusion and capacity vary greatly from synagogue to synagogue. Many families do not feel comfortable in their home synagogue communities, feeling rejected and ashamed.
Others are embraced and welcomed.
The need for inclusive social Jewish programming is especially critical for young adults with developmental disabilities. After high school graduation, there is a lack of organized social initiatives that bring Jewish young adults together. Yet these young adults don’t stop wanting to belong to a Jewish community, to fit in, and to feel included in Jewish life experiences. Very often they need additional support to help facilitate their participation in Jewish programs or services but would rather not receive that assistance from their parents or caregivers.
Four years ago, WJCS formed Shelanu, a social/recreational membership community for Jewish young adults ages 18-35 who have autism and live in Westchester County. Shelanu provides a hub for members to meet and socialize, while also providing Jewish context through Shabbat dinners, attending services at local temples, and participating in holiday celebrations throughout the year. Shelanu gives members the support they need to successfully navigate the complex landscape of community living.
Shelanu’s synagogue partners have created an open, inclusive community where program participants feel accepted and valued. Shelanu members have proudly carried the Torah during Simchat Torah services, lit the menorah at Chanukah, shaken the lulav and etrog in a community Sukkah, and attended Israeli dance classes. Shelanu members have learned the meaning of Tikkun Olam and take pride in doing for others. They have worked in a community garden and donated the vegetables to a food pantry. They’ve also made goodie bags for a homeless shelter.
As one young woman who joined Shelanu four years ago said, “Before I found Shelanu, I didn’t have any friends and didn’t have anything to do. When Shelanu opened it changed my life”.
It’s not just its members but also their families who benefit from Shelanu. Watching their young adult children develop and feel comfortable socially, spiritually, and emotionally is tremendously rewarding. Additionally, members of J-Teen Leadership, a community service initiative for Jewish high school students who want to make a difference in the world today, lead a program for Shelanu’s young adults— to the enjoyment and benefit of individuals in both groups.
To learn more about Shelanu, visit www.wjcs.com/shelanu or contact Robin Davies-Small, M.Ed. Program Coordinator at 914 949-7699, x404 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Shelanu is supported by funding from UJA Federation of New York.