Shelly Christensen, MA literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Her award-winning work as Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis led her to co-found Jewish Disability Awareness Month with the Jewish Special Education Consortium. Shelly’s work as founder and Executive Director of Inclusion Innovations, where she provides training, organizational and community development, and strategic planning so Jewish organizations and communities can become more welcoming and inclusive, is the standard in the field of sacred community inclusion. She is co-founder of the new Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Shelly speaks at numerous conferences including Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, ADVANCE, Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, the 2012 Disability Inclusion Initiative, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and World Union for Progressive Judaism. Her articles on inclusion and parent perspectives have appeared in journals, and she has published chapters in a number of books including “Judaism and Health,” and the “Jewish Funders Network Disabilities for Funders.” Her personal experiences navigating both secular and Jewish worlds as the parent of a child with a disability gave her the inspiration to innovate the field.
The children and teens at Shutaf followed their Zumba teacher as she showed them several new steps before she started the music. Once the children heard the Latin Hip Hop beats of the music, every one of them busted a move or two. Each was clearly dancing to the beat of his or her own drummer.
As a Zumba “regular” in my hometown of Minneapolis, I spent the last five years learning to salsa-chacha-tango and move my middle aged body in the groove. It may not be a pretty sight, but it sure keeps me fit! In November 2013, while I was in Jerusalem speaking at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, I met Beth Steinberg, who invited me to visit Shutaf. I couldn’t wait! One of the activities on the day I visited was a Zumba class. When I heard that music I peeked in the room. Kids were moving, shaking, jumping and laughing. This was Zumba Shutaf-style and it was glorious!
In my work as a disability and inclusion faith community expert I get to visit a lot of Jewish communities and programs. Like Beth and many of our colleagues, I am a parent. When our middle son Jacob was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 15, I marveled at how well our synagogue encouraged his Jewish journey. When Jacob was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) at seven, the religious school and the synagogue community made sure that he was always included with his peers, and that he was taught as stated in Proverbs Mishlei 22:6: Teach a child according to his way. Even when he is old he will not depart from it.
As parents we met stumbling blocks in the form of public school teachers and administrators. Jacob’s first teacher in Kindergarten complained so intensely about our son’s behavior at his first conference, I left in tears. Knowing that his education was at stake, I called the next day to request a change in placement. We were relieved when the principal understood that Jacob was in a bad situation with a teacher who decided to keep the whole class in from recess, blaming Jacob’s behavior. But when she took them out one day for recess and left Jacob alone in the room, my husband and I realized how dangerous someone like this could be to our son’s self-esteem and learning.
During the course of Jacob’s education we met many wonderful teachers who cared deeply about him as a learner. We also had some large lemons in there and I learned how to be a successful advocate in order to learn about Jacob’s educational rights in the public system. This advocacy work also broadened my role as the mom of a child with a disability. Personally, I blamed myself and did not understand why God had chosen to give my child a disability. My anger at God came out in all directions, but was mostly focused on the public educators who just didn’t get that Jacob needed supports and accommodations.
I realized two things: 1.) My anger was not going to help Jacob get his education. Teachers were not going to be bullied by my outbursts when I disagreed with them. 2.) I concluded that God was probably hurting as much as me when Jacob struggled. Instead of staying stuck, I acted:
1.) I became a graduate student to study the needs and attitudes that parents have when they raise a child with a disability and why some like me turn to anger, and others, like I became, felt affirmed and successful when relationships with school partners were collaborative.
2.) I made peace with God, and instead of being so angry, I became God’s partner. In doing so, I joined the Jewish communal field and developed a program through Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis, the Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities. In this role I have served my community synagogues, schools and agencies as well as people with disabilities and those who love them, to recognize that inclusion is our responsibility and obligation as Jews and as mensches.
In 2007 I wrote the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, which has become the go-to manual for organizations around the world. In 2010 I founded Inclusion Innovations, an organization that provides consultations, training, planning and program management to faith community organizations. I now travel around the world working with organizations that are intent upon changing their culture and attitudes, breaking down barriers and supporting meaningful inclusion by people with disabilities and those who love them.
Beth and I share that tikkun olam philosophy. When we see an opportunity to support someone to live a good life, we figure out ways to do that. Jacob made it through public school as a self-advocate. He holds two Associate of Arts degrees and recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. He is receiving support through Minnesota’s Vocation Rehabilitational Services for customized employment. He has a good life and we are so proud of him.
I pray that every child, teen and adult who desires to live a good life has the opportunities and supports available to them that Jacob has had. Parents of children with disabilities have hopes and dreams for their children, and they too need the support of organizations like Shutaf so their children have a safe and welcoming place to express themselves and their interests, where they feel the loving arms of their community wrapped around them.
Every time I go to Zumba now I do a little Shutaf-style step or two, inspired by those beautiful dancers who taught me that it’s not the perfection of the steps; rather, it’s the dance inspired by our hearts that