Savannah was a 13-year-old girl who was having behavioral problems in her religious after-school program. This, among other factors, led to social exclusion and seriously low confidence around anything having to do with Hebrew, Torah, or Jewish learning.

As she entered her year of study before her bat mitzvah, Savannah had tremendous self-doubt about whether she could actually fulfill the requirements of becoming a Jewish adult. Usually, this involves learning about a portion from the Torah, chanting this portion in Hebrew in front of the congregation and giving a teaching about an occurrence or theme in the text. All things that Savannah was sure she could not do.

At the same time, she was having lots of trouble in her secular middle school. All this, mixed with some other personal factors, led to a mental break for Savannah. She had to be removed from school and eventually hospitalized.

When she left the hospital, the question of her bat mitzvah came up again. This time, however, her synagogue community, through her rabbis and teachers, made two keys decisions:

  • First, they moved the date from its original position to one that allowed time for Savannah to fully explore what it should mean to become a bat mitzvah
  • Secondly, they completely changed the process. Instead of insisting on her bat mitzvah looking like everyone else’s, no matter the impact on Savannah, the temple community asked her to study texts that touched her personally, with an expectation of a serious piece of work and teaching as an end product.

So, Savannah spent 9 months studying lyrics to songs by her favorite rock band, alongside stories and texts commenting on Torah. She also produced a graphic novel, which she distributed at the service where she gave a teaching on that week’s Torah portion, using those same rock band lyrics, along with a few choice highlights from the story of the golden calf.

Savannah’s teachers took what mattered to Savannah and applied the values and lessons from common bat mitzvah study. In doing so, they preserved the bat mitzvah’s central role of serious learning coupled with presenting yourself to the community as a Jewish adult and teacher, while simultaneously respecting and valuing Savannah’s whole self.

Savannah spent much of her time growing up socially ostracized, causing a crisis of identity. When she was brought back in for this milestone, the leaders of the synagogue said “We want you. All of you. Exactly as you are.” They let her decide what her identity was, what her place would be, and how to proudly present that to the congregation.

They could have forced her to fulfill the bat mitzvah requirements exactly as prescribed, making sure all would look right on the outside. Instead of that, however, they chose to make their congregation a place where Savannah could be Savannah, an inclusive environment that acknowledged her mental health issues and valued the work she had done to gain stability in her life.

1 in 5 Americans is a person with a disability. This particular minority in American society is unique in that we all can join at any given moment. Disability does not discriminate based on race, gender, or religious affiliation. It does, however, mean you are significantly more likely to be poor.

We, at the Ruderman Family Foundation, we think inclusion of people with disabilities is critical to building a just society. Notice, I did not say good or kind or charitable. Inclusion is a social justice issue and a matter of human rights.

At the Ruderman Family Foundation, we work on promoting inclusion with a few guiding principles:

  1. We have a holistic approach: we look to effect change throughout a person’s lifetime, from birth to death.
  2. We aim to reach a critical mass of people – each and every one of you, of us, is an agent of change; when we all work to implement inclusion of people with disabilities in our churches, synagogues, and mosques, that type of change emanates out to the other communities you touch
  3. We view inclusion as a global concept – it is relevant to all parts of our society. Not a single one of our institutions is morally exempt from considering how it can better serve the full spectrum of its community members

With that in mind, I invite you to join us; join our movement. Join me for a conversation on inclusion of people with disabilities in your churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, and any other institution. Let’s talk together about the milestones that mark time in a person’s life, like Savannah’s bat mitzvah. Let’s talk together about how we can reach a critical mass of changemakers; and let’s talk about how we can transform every aspect of our society to be fully inclusive.