‘Inclusion enthusiasts’ JOIN together to create positive change

“The purpose of JOIN is to create a network of mutual support for families dealing with the joys and challenges of raising exceptional children,” says Rabbi Deborah Zuker.

By Louise Rachlis

When Madelaine Hill Werier once went to sign up her special needs child to participate in a general program, she recalls being told, “We don’t do that here.” Fortunately, such negative experiences are not often the case.

“I have experienced some great examples of inclusion for my kids within the community,” said Hill Werier, a co-founder of the Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN). “I feel embraced and welcomed by my synagogue, our schools, and camps. It’s not always that way, however, and it never fails to shock me when exclusion or discrimination does occur.”

JOIN is collaborating with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, Tamir, Jewish Family Services of Ottawa and Kehillat Beth Israel to sponsor Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month in the city.

Hill Werier says that although those negative moments “temporarily stun and sting,” they also “inspire and drive us to put the daily hours into our JOIN endeavours. Being there for other families when they have those moments is another rewarding part of this work.”

Hill Werier, Rabbi Deborah Zuker and Ruchama Uzan, all mothers of special needs children, founded JOIN in December 2017.

The self-described “inclusion enthusiasts” created JOIN to advocate, network and develop programs for the inclusion of children with diverse abilities in Ottawa’s Jewish community.

“We all had children who attended Ganon Preschool at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre and knew each other,” said Hill Werier. “Rabbi Zuker and I have children with similar issues and noticed there was an opportunity to fill a gap in our community. Ru seemed like a good third person and she was very enthusiastic.”

Rabbi Zuker, associate rabbi at Kehillat Beth Israel, has two children, Uzan has four and Hill Werier has two. The busy mothers took a bit of time to figure out what would be most “impactful” and the best use of their time.

“We all have different professional experience,” said Hill Werier. “We’re not social workers or psychologists, we’re parents. The best way for us to be useful is to connect people to other people, and to be a constant and positive advocate for inclusion whenever our energy and schedules allow.”

“The purpose of JOIN is to create a network of mutual support for families dealing with the joys and challenges of raising exceptional children,” said Rabbi Zuker. “Too often we come up against roadblocks for our children and can feel quite alone. Knowing others who have been there before, and who have insight to share, builds power and makes us each better parents and advocates. Our children belong in our shared Jewish spaces as much as any children do, and those spaces – not the children – can make this happen by committing to deep principles of inclusion.”

“JOIN also seeks to raise the profile of disability inclusion for people of all ages in our Ottawa Jewish community,” said Rabbi Zuker. “We have seen that while most have good intentions, there is too much ‘old thinking’ about what is possible, who belongs, and how to make that happen.”

“Our kids inspired us to do this, but our work doesn’t have to always be about our own individual children,” explained Hill Werier. “We’ve all had experiences, positive and negative, that have lit the fires for advocacy and volunteer work.”

“We have had to advocate for inclusive placements for our son in both public school and private schools,” said Uzan, owner of A Dashing Pinch, a kosher caterer. “We have advocated for camp and extracurricular activities. JOIN has helped as a place for support through the processes. A place where it is OK to not be OK with the status quo. Where ideas are shared in a proactive and supportive way.”

While Uzan says JOIN’s advocacy has had productive outcomes, there is still “a long road ahead to take the advocacy from basic permission to systems and institutions inviting and welcoming our kids and families.”

JOIN has held several workshops – including “Disability Rights 101” with Harvey Goldberg, which was held January 30 at Jewish Family Services of Ottawa. Among the attendees at their workshops are parents, teachers and educators from the community, as well as therapists and others both inside and outside the Jewish community.

They have also arranged social events that included children of all abilities and participated in events like Mitzvah Day where their “Sensory Squad” provided sensory break stations at busy community children’s events, and community education about sensory sensitivities. The quiet area lets kids regroup and then return to the activities.

JOIN has a Facebook page and is in the process of forming a board of directors.

“Experiencing discrimination or exclusion in a faith community, especially concerning one’s child, is profoundly hurtful and devastating,” said Hill Werier. “Using our shared lived experience and engaging other families in our community, we are creating positive change in our community. It’s a gradual shift but it is happening. JOIN has participated in some wonderful collaborations and is continuing to find community partners who share our desire for inclusion. It is a beautiful thing.”