TSTI, WAE Center, Arts Unbound partner to promote inclusion

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SOUTH ORANGE / WEST ORANGE / ORANGE, NJ — Inclusion is part of the communal DNA at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, from the Reform synagogue’s fully accessible physical plant to its commitment to welcoming all students to its religious school. TSTI’s efforts have led it to be recognized as an Exemplar Congregation — one of 27 in North America — by the Union for Reform Judaism for its great strides in inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of congregational life. TSTI now serves as a mentor and resource to other Jewish communities seeking to expand their inclusion work.

This year, the WAE Center, based in West Orange, received a $12,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and worked in partnership with TSTI’s Linda and Rudy Slucker Religious School and the Religious School at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. Together, the organizations are piloting an innovative curriculum that will be used to guide educational institutions in understanding inclusion through a Jewish lens. The curriculum was co-developed by Religious School Director Mindy Schreff of TSTI and Charlotte Frank, the education director from Adath Shalom, for students in second and seventh grades.

The program was conceived by the WAE (Wellness, Arts, Enrichment) Center, whose mission is to help developmentally disabled adults “find the creative spark within” and share their talents with others. The expressive arts learning center is part of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest, a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

At TSTI, students participated in hands-on learning experiences that combined age-appropriate study, discussion and expression through art to convey the concept of inclusion as a Jewish value; the lessons were conducted in February — Jewish Disabilities Month — and early March.

  • The second-graders learned about how each of them has special qualities and challenges, and that Judaism provides the space to accept and celebrate all. Their program also included a community outreach project for residents of JESPY House, a residential program for adults with learning and developmental disabilities in South Orange. The second-grade modules were conducted as family workshops with parents.
  • The seventh-graders examined Jewish texts about inclusion,welcomed artists from the WAE Center who use visual arts to express themselves, and learned firsthand what true inclusion feels like to the disabled community. They then created original artwork that depicted their thoughts on inclusion and welcoming, under the guidance of two artists from Arts Unbound, an organization in Orange that supports artists with special needs.

Schreff explained that through the new curriculum, TSTI’s students came to understand what it means to accept themselves first, and then extend that feeling of acceptance to others who are different — thereby creating a more tolerant and understanding community within the school and beyond.

“We feel confident that we have given them a valuable life skill that will enable them to share their talents for the greater good,” Schreff said in a press release. “Their work is thoughtful and shows deep insights into what it means to be inclusive.”