‘Belonging’ Means More Than Just Inclusion


This is part of a series of essays in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

Many synagogues have adopted the above sentence from Isaiah 56:7 as the theme for inclusion. It describes our aspirations as congregations and organizations beautifully. But it’s the first part of this iconic verse that informs us why inclusion is woven into the Jewish narrative.  

“I will bring them to My holy mount, and

I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer,

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar

For My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”

We are reminded that in God’s eyes, each person contributes to this world. God brings us together and accepts the gifts we each possess. We share in rejoicing. Everyone belongs. This is how our synagogues become houses of prayer for all people. This is God’s concept of inclusion. 

Sometimes Jewish organizations try to include the broadest number of people, without asking individuals with disabilities and mental health conditions how they want to participate in Jewish life. 

If we focus on the phrase for all people, we may lose sight of God’s intent for a house of prayer. 

Belonging is the Heart of Inclusion.

Belonging is universal. What gives you a sense of belonging in your Jewish life? Is it davening (praying) on Shabbat, getting together on Sunday mornings for a bagel and shmear, attending Torah study, celebrating holidays with family and friends? For every person, expect a unique answer. 

People living with a disability or mental health condition, and those who love them, too often are guests at the annual Hanukah service or Sukkah meal. Merely offering a “taste of Judaism” rather than encouraging people to participate in any and all programs you offer can increase someone’s longing to belong.  

We can do better. 

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, z’l’ was a leading advocate for including people with disabilities and mental health conditions in all aspects of Jewish life. She said, “We don’t welcome people with disabilities because they have disabilities. We welcome them because they are people.” 

That is what makes a house of prayer for all people.  

Shelly Christensen is an author, international speaker and consultant in the faith community disability inclusion movement. Shelly’s newest book is From Longing to Belonging-A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community. Drawing on extensive personal and professional experiences, Shelly offers a new approach to inclusion that builds upon our past endeavors and brings together the two pillars of inclusive communities–the Spirit of Belonging and the Structure of Inclusion. 

Shelly directed the award-winning Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities in Minneapolis for thirteen years. She is co-founder and organizer of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and contributes to numerous Jewish and interfaith inclusion initiatives in educational and leadership roles.

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