As we begin this new year of 5784 in the week ahead and kick off our Federation Centennial, I pose this question: What does it mean to truly belong within a community?
Does sharing proximity mean that we belong? Does someone else have the power to tell us that we belong or is it something intrinsic, something we sense? When we talk about inclusion and belonging, I like to differentiate between them in the following manner: Inclusion is what we do, the actions we take, to make others feel like they are a part of community. Belonging is how someone feels when things are done well.
Building a community of belonging is what we strive for in Greater MetroWest and I’m proud that this summer, we came one step closer to reaching this goal. This past July, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest embarked on our Centennial Mission to Israel with almost 500 community members, including 28 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) from our partner agencies, JESPY and JSDD, on Bus 1.
Some might say that this was a wonderful opportunity that we provided for the adults with disabilities. I would argue that while this was an incredible experience for them, it was an especially meaningful experience for all the Mission participants because we got to experience it together. The reality is that inclusion benefits everyone! I am so proud of our Greater MetroWest community for recognizing this value and ensuring that we can share this experience with one another!
We are a Jewish community that has been working toward this goal for decades. We have had lay and professional committees in Greater MetroWest that have been supporting a more inclusive Jewish community long before I came to this role 15 years ago. I continue the work that they began and stand on their shoulders as we move our community ahead, moving the goal post each time we achieve a new landmark of what it means to be a community of inclusion and belonging.
Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorim l’hibatil mimena (Pirke Avot 2:21). We are not obligated to complete the work, but we are not free to desist from it either.
To help ensure a successful experience for all on this Mission, we worked closely with our overseas local agency partners. Just as each of the 12 community buses traveled on their own and were part of large community events each day, Bus 1 followed the same model. Our excursions may have varied a bit to meet the needs of our group, but we always came back together to experience community with the whole group.
One participant shared, “I was very happy and proud to be part of Israel’s 75th anniversary plus the MetroWest Jewish Federation’s 100th anniversary.”
One of the bus captains shared, “Going on this trip was an experience. I’d never been to Israel before. And now all I can seemingly think about is going back… Now that I have experienced Israel, I want to know more. I want to show friends/relatives where I’ve been. What I experienced…”
The impact of this inclusive Centennial Mission continues to be felt, even two months later. Bus 1 participants shared their experience with their peers at JSDD and JESPY, telling stories, sharing photos, and talking about how they want to continue to engage in our Greater MetroWest community. They will embark on a new Melton Jewish learning program, sponsored by Federation, this fall. An inclusive Israeli dancing event is planned with Bus 1 and another bus, creating a greater sense of belonging for all who came together in Israel. Bus 1 participants joined other community members in giving back by packing school supplies for students in need.
To our knowledge, we are the first Federation to share a fully inclusive mission to Israel. We could not have done it alone. Knowledgeable colleagues who have led Israel experiences for young adults with disabilities shared their expertise with us. Howard Blas, National Director of the Tikvah Program, shared his knowledge from past experiences with Tikvah and Birthright trips. We hope that our experience this summer will lead others to share their future community missions in a more inclusive manner.
Community and belonging are all about these reciprocal relationships. This summer, we made great strides toward the goal of building a Jewish community of belonging in which we each have the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to and gain from one another! But this is just the beginning.
As we approach the New Year, let’s continue to explore ways in which Greater MetroWest can build on the momentum we began this summer. Invite someone to join you at synagogue, a learning program, or a social event. Think about who may not be coming through your doors and how you might reach out to welcome them. Take intentional, inclusive action steps toward creating a Greater MetroWest community of belonging. And know that Federation is here as a resource to you as you do so.