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Jewish Journal

Rosh Pina: Cornerstone of Special Needs Inclusion in the Jewish Community

by Michelle K. Wolf

September 21, 2012 | 9:51 am

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone.”
--Psalm 118

For Jewish families raising a child or teen with special needs, the challenges of how to have our child included in the larger Jewish community are a deeply-felt issue, but the burning question has always been this -- how do we get those not personally impacted to make inclusion a communal priority?

Elana Naftalin-Kelman, director of the Tikvah special needs program at Camp Ramah in California has come up with a solution: The Rosh Pina  (“cornerstone” in Hebrew) program which will confer special needs certification for all types of Jewish organizations following a comprehensive year-long study process involving all the various segments  of the organization, such as members, students, volunteers and staff.

And even better, she’s starting the  project as one of the eight new Joshua Venture Group (JVG) Fellows, which means she will receive $80,000 in unrestricted funding and over $20,000 in personalized coaching, training and networking.  Rosh Pina will be the first (JVG) project funded in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation which is focused on the field of advancing inclusion and public awareness of people with disabilities.

“I had been thinking for awhile on how to really create ‘deep change’ in an organization with inclusion, “ Elana said during a phone interview. “A class or Shabbat program or two are nice but don’t really integrate people with disabilities.”

Elana’s vision is that each Jewish organization that wants to earn certification will engage in a year-long process that involves all levels of the institution, from the physical plant, to the curriculum (if it is a school) or year-round Shabbat/Holiday inclusion (if it a synagogue) and so forth. A team of specialists  will be brought in as needed to provide expertise. Synagogues will pay a nominal fee to participate, and each institution will create its own customized plan on “becoming a place that is known to be welcoming to people of all abilities.”

After getting certified, each organization can post their actual certificate and also re-apply for certification down the road.

Elana has been in the field of Jewish special education for over 15 years and has consulted with multiple Jewish institutions to aid them in thinking about how to be more inclusive of Jews of all abilities. I've had the pleasure of knowing Elana personally for many years, as the first leader of our Koleinu special needs Shabbat services at Temple Beth Am, and then through our son Danny's involvement with the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah. She is knowledgable, creative and most important, sees each person with disabilities as an individual, not as a cluster of medical conditions.

Since JVG announced her Ruderman Fellowship, she has heard from many shuls, schools, and Jewish museums interested in being one of the first three organizations to be part of the new Rosh Pina program. “People are coming out of the woodwork—it’s been great to receive such a big response,” she said.

For more information, email her at elana@rpcornerstone.org

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