From Longing To Belonging: A Conversation With Advocate Shelly Christensen


Shelly Christensen literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. New Normal Editor Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer spoke with Shelly about her new book and the progress that the Jewish community has made around disability inclusion over the last decade.

GKM: Congratulations on “From Longing to Belonging.” Can you share about the inspiration for this book?

SC: The inspiration for From Longing to Belonging comes from the many people I’ve met and worked with over the 17 years I’ve been in the professional world of inclusion, and of course, my own family’s experiences in Jewish life. I’ve seen many Jewish communities shift toward exploring inclusion, and incorporating important changes. But the idea that people with disabilities and mental health conditions were not always afforded the same choices and ways to participate as those without these diagnoses struck a chord with me. Jewish values inspired me, as well. I believe that each one of us has something to contribute to our world, to fulfill our individual role in tikkun olam.

GKM: It’s been 12 years since your first book came out. What changes have you seen in the Jewish community around disability inclusion in the last decade?

SC: My first book,”The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities” was published in 2007. It was an introduction to inclusion, and mainly focused on what organizations could do to raise the issue. A few years after the book was published, I realized that important people were missing from the inclusion efforts–people with disabilities themselves. So many organizations were attracting parents and disability professionals to lead efforts, but it was always FOR people with disabilities and not WITH them. As I met people in my work as a speaker and consultant, I listened to their stories, imagined with them the possibilities of genuine participation in Jewish life, and realized that all the inclusion work, including my own, was focused primarily on organizations, and not on people. The biggest change has to be supporting people to live the lives they wish. There are a number of organizations that apply this person-centered approach, with more coming on board more often than ever before.

GKM: Your new book is a guide to including people with disabilities AND mental health conditions in your faith community. There are some congregations who’ve learned how to welcome and support people with cognitive, learning or physical disabilities but may not have addressed mental health issues. Can you talk about how communities can begin to include people with mental health conditions?

SC: There are just as many people living with mental health conditions as those living with disabilities–approximately 20 percent. In the early days of this work, no one discussed including people with mental health conditions. I met people who lived with a mental health condition who asked me if inclusion “covered” them. I honestly didn’t know what to say to them. The stigma surrounding mental illness was, and still is, an obstacle. It troubled me to include some people but not others, and decided that it was absolutely critical to acknowledge that people living with a mental health condition, and those who love them, need their faith community, too.

Faith communities must acknowledge that there are people with mental health conditions present–or would be if they had support and acceptance. They have be intentional in order ess to define, identify and reduce or eliminate obstacles  imposed by stigma and discrimination. It’s also critical to initiate individual conversations with people to find out how the community can be supportive of their participation.. Jewish communal organizations can come together to sponsor a conference on mental health and  inclusion, using the wealth of knowledge and experience in the community.

GKM: You’ve spent time learning about inclusion from leaders in other faith traditions. What have you learned from them?

SC: First, I’ve learned that no matter what the theology, traditions, teachings, and culture are, faith communities are eager to embrace the value of inclusion. Just as each person living with a disability or mental health condition is unique, so is each community of faith. Second, while writing From Longing to Belonging, I researched the history of inclusion in faith traditions and communities, and for the most part, people with disabilities and mental health conditions were treated as if they had no place in society. Many were relegated to faith-based orphanages and institutions with very little hope of ever emerging from them. I’m involved in a number of interfaith initiatives, and I love how people of many faiths come together and learn from each other. One of the biggest revelations I had during the years I spent preparing to write the book came from my friend Anne Masters, who is the inclusion specialist in the Archdiocese of Newark. She encouraged me to consider writing about how putting the focus on the individual was just as important as providing all the tools and resources for a faith community to organize their inclusion initiative. This idea eventually became “The Spirit of Belonging,” and this is what communities will learn is that missing puzzle piece. Inclusion is about people, not programs.

GKM: What are your hopes for how this book will impact our Jewish community?

SC: From Longing to Belonging is the next phase of “inclusion” and provides the way for all Jewish organizations, synagogues, agencies, seminaries, schools, camps, and more, to explore what it means to belong, The stories will open peoples’ eyes to the possibilities belonging affords any member of the community. The practical guidance provides a comprehensive step-by-step approach to inclusion. In the tradition of Abraham and Sarah, I hope that Jewish communities and organizations open their tent flaps and strive to embrace the spirit of belonging for all people.