In the spring of 2017, Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel (KTI) in Port Chester, N.Y., was privileged to bring Gary Alpert to our religious school through the Gateways Ambassadors for Inclusion program.

Ambassadors for Inclusion and Understanding Our Differences help children understand the people around them by allowing them to engage in honest and candid conversations. As a Jewish community, we talk a lot about how everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image; but I fear that too often, we limit ourselves to thinking about people who look, move and sound like we do. Gary’s presentation focused on people who are hard of hearing and/or deaf; however, he started a much broader conversation among the religious school students about what it means to have differences.

By telling his own story, and by infusing it with humor, Gary put KTI’s students at ease, and they were able to ask their questions without feeling self-conscious. They wanted to know what it felt like to be deaf, if Gary had a hard time making friends when he was younger, what it was like to be raised in a hearing family and whether or not he liked Hebrew school when he was their age.

During the session, students engaged in a learning activity where they were asked to communicate with each other without speaking. Through this brief exercise, the students began to understand the challenges that people who are deaf face in school, at home, walking down the street and, yes, in the synagogue.

The children had fun learning to sign the Hebrew letters and their own names, and they left with a greater appreciation for members of the deaf community and for people who experience life differently than they do. I believe that the power of Ambassadors for Inclusion comes from the empathy the program fosters in children.

Congregation KTI is planning another Ambassadors for Inclusion program, and we know it will undoubtedly enhance the Jewish education we provide. My hope is that our religious school students will share their experience with the rest of the congregation to help us take one step closer to becoming the inclusive, welcoming synagogue I believe KTI can be.

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert serves Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, N.Y.

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