Open Waters, Open Community

Accessibility and Inclusion, Art Gallery and Education Center, Youth

Originally posted on February 29, 2016

by Ilana Snapstailer

headshotWhen I brought my 7th grade Rosh Hodesh group to Mayyim Hayyim, we learned about the aquatic lift meant to help someone with a disability use the mikveh. When Mikveh and Education Director, Lisa Berman, asked the girls, “Why might someone with a disability use the mikveh?” one girl promptly answered, “The same reason anyone else would use the mikveh!” It is this outlook, providing opportunities for people with disabilities not because they have different Jewish needs, but because they have many of the same Jewish needs, that should be more prevalent throughout the Jewish community. Because of this experience, I jumped at the opportunity when Associate Director of Education, Leeza Negelev, asked if our group would pilot their Discussion Guide on inclusion and access.

In partnership with The Ruderman Family Foundation, Mayyim Hayyim created a beautiful film, called Open Waters: Mikveh For Everybody. The lesson I piloted consisted of watching the short film with the students (grades 8-11), followed by a series of activities and conversations that applied the spirit of “Open Waters” to everyday life in the Jewish community. The underlying question was: How do we make Jewish rituals and community more inclusive for those with disabilities? The end goal was for us to brainstorm how our Jewish after-school program, Kesher Newton, could be a more inclusive and welcoming place.

kesher pilot 2From the film and activities, the students inferred that not everyone with a disability needs or wants the same kind of support. For example, Lisa, a woman in the film who is blind, said she appreciated being told about her mikveh surroundings, but then being left to have her experience just like anyone else. We also discussed what it’s like to feel “on the outside.” The students shared that they have all experienced “being on the outside” at one point, and in one of the activities, their own stories were a powerful way to normalize the importance of inclusion.

kesher pilot

Finally, we formed a plan to make Kesher Newton more inclusive. Here are a few ideas we brainstormed: making sure we are cognizant of allergies, pairing new students with “buddies,” making sure our hallways are clear of obstacles in case we have a visitor who is visually impaired or in a wheelchair.

We were honored to be one of the first groups to pilot the Open Waters: Mikveh for Everybody Discussion Guide. In doing so, we played a part in furthering the work of inclusion for others. Because as we were reminded by one of our 7th graders, we are more the same than we are different.

To learn more about bringing The Open Waters Discussion Guide to your community click here.

Ilana Snapstailer is a Jewish educator and the Executive Director of Kesher Newton. She lives in Cambridge with her new husband and disability rights advocate, Avner Fink.  

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