Jaime Bassman

By Jaime Bassman, Consultant, Whole Community Inclusion

Back in the 1980’s, after the movie “Field of Dreams” was released, I heard a particular line from the film that was frequently quoted (and often misquoted): “If you build it, he will come.”

When the Pew Study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” was released in the fall of 2013 (and the hand wringing over the future of American Judaism began anew), it spurred many organizations to consider how to rebuild their institutions and offer fresh, relevant programming in order to keep Jews in the fold. If we build something inclusive that appeals to them, will the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings come? Will the interfaith couples come?  Will the unaffiliated come?

However, the response has been quite different when it comes to considering the 15 to 20 percent of Jews (many of them already committed on both a ritual and a spiritual level) who are living with some kind of visible or invisible disability.  Building something new in order to attract and retain this particular group is often dismissed as not financially viable, or too challenging to be worthwhile.  Under those circumstances, these individuals and families (who are desperately trying to gain access or overcome barriers to engagement in Jewish life) often find themselves on the outside looking in.

If these families aren’t too disheartened, they might regroup and look for another synagogue, another day school, another camp. Hopefully they will find one with the tools to lift their spirits so they can once again feel positively about their Jewish community.

On the plus side, Jewish Learning Venture is the type of innovative organization that builds programs and relationships so that families, institutions and community will come together.

For the last several years, through jkidphilly, they have been designing and successfully hosting playdates and mitzvah projects and PJ Library story times. These invaluable opportunities give our youngest children and their families an energizing way to learn together how to begin and remain on the path to greater Jewish learning and engagement. The children and families keep coming, each month, and the cumulative value of the building really does pay off.

Through the Whole Community Inclusion initiative, Jewish Learning Venture is taking their commitment to inclusion to an entirely new level.  I am excited to be on the forefront of this journey, and the first few months have involved a lot of scaffolding and construction.

In only the last few months:

  • We “built” a sensory friendly playdate, and they came — those who would otherwise be unable to attend a Jewish gathering as a family; those whose needs aren’t particularly unusual except that they wanted a quieter room to escape the hustle and bustle.
  • We “built” a series of trainings and webinars, and they came- parents who up until now had been feeling isolated, inclusion committee lay leaders from different synagogues who previously had no method of communicating and brainstorming ideas together, teachers who had always wondered about sensory integration and behavioral strategies but never knew who to ask or how to proceed.
  • We “built” a consortium of Jewish agencies who want to invest in supporting these individuals and families, and people keep coming to the table to form partnerships and work together on new cross-agency initiatives.

If we wait for people to struggle to gain access and then leave in despair, we will continue to see waning levels of engagement as reflected in the Pew Study. However, if we commit to building, they will come — and they will stay.