By Eileen Freed

What does it take to be a Jewish community in which everyone feels they belong? What steps can local organizations, congregations and programs take to demonstrate their openness and accessibility to all? How can the community work together to create an environment in which individuals and families with special needs are able to participate and belong fully in Jewish life?

These are the kinds of questions being grappled with by the Jewish community’s Belonging Task Force – a group of dedicated volunteers and professionals, including parents of children with special needs, from Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Services (JFS), Jewish Community Center, Hebrew Day School, and Ann Arbor congregations.

Belonging and inclusion have a range of meanings and applications. The initial focus of the Belonging task force is on how – individually and as a collective – communal organizations can best address the needs of individuals with a wide variety of learning, developmental and mental health challenges. To inform the conversation, identify service gaps, and provide guidance to developing a culture of belonging for all, the Task Force commissioned a needs assessment of the greater Ann Arbor Jewish community. Jewish Federation funded the needs assessment with supplemental financial support from local organizations and donors. The Task Force selected Matan, a national organization which supports Jewish professionals, communities and families in creating and sustaining inclusive settings in educational, communal and spiritual aspects of Jewish life, to conduct the assessment.

The Matan report references significant “philosophical agreement on the part of JFS, Federation, synagogues, early childhood offerings, the day school, and camps that each and every person should experience a sense of belonging in ways that respond to their specific needs.” However, despite clear need, they found that resources are few and far between and that the community lacks an intentional plan for successful community-wide belonging.
Recommendations from the extensive report center around five areas: community awareness, intra and inter-agency collaboration and communication, personnel, training. A range of suggestions put forward in the assessment are being considered and evaluated by the committee as well as by individual organizations, and in the coming months, priorities for next steps and potential funding will be established. Task Force members are conducting additional research and contacting communities that have taken successful concrete steps in developing cultures of belonging.

Simultaneous to the Task Force convening, JFS has coordinated a belonging pilot project. With funding from the Jewish Women’s Foundation, JFS engaged an expert consultant to advise JFS, Beth Israel Congregation and Temple Beth Emeth on issues of special needs inclusion with a focus on shaping inclusive family events and Shabbat experiences. As part of the project, a manual emphasizing best practices and resources will be developed and distributed to all local Jewish organizations for their benefit and use. The knowledge and early findings from this endeavor have been shared with the task force along the way and continue to inform the Task Force’s deepening understanding of community needs.

To find out more about how our community is working together to foster a sense of belonging for all, contact your congregation, local Jewish agency or Federation Chief Development Officer Sharyn J. Gallatin (sharyn@jewishannarbor.org, 734-773-3533).