Abby’s Story: A Passion for Inclusion
This Profile is brought to The Layers Project Magazine in partnership with The Jewish Education Project.
(1/5) “Home for All”
“I was always in the orbit of Jewish life. My family was traditional in some ways and irreverent in others. I would describe my father as someone who went kicking and screaming to shul every Shabbat but then also made sure to say kaddish daily for his mother-in-law. He lived that kind of paradox and I feel very similar to him. I struggle with a lot about the Jewish community, Judaism or religion, in general. But I am also deeply in love with it. My home growing up was very intellectually rich with discussions about all aspects of Judaism. Yiddish was very present in the family as was a strong attachment to Israel and a focus on remembering the Holocaust. Along with an abiding interest in the world around us, we had Jewish food, Jewish music and, generally, a full immersion into Jewish culture.
My mother was a professor of comparative literature. As a child, I would pluck one of the thousands of books off her shelf. I was immediately very drawn to Russian literature. Though my Russian- and Ukrainian-born grandparents would refuse “to speak that language in the house” (the language of the land in which they were persecuted), I majored in Russian Studies in college. It was a period of time where there was a lot of excitement about Gorbachev’s glasnost’ and perestroika – the “opening up” of the Soviet Union – and there was a growing interest on campus in studying Russian. I started with the language and got completely enveloped by the culture and literature. Some of my friends spent a year or a semester in Israel. I wanted to explore something other than my Jewishness, to explore other parts of myself; I went to Moscow.
I didn’t expect my experience in Russia, my familiarity with the language, and my knowledge of the Russian-speaking community, to draw me into a career in the Jewish community. I was hired at UJA-Federation of New York at a time when they were looking to engage more with Russian-speaking Jews. In order to do so, they wanted someone who could speak Russian and, more importantly, who understood where Russians were coming from culturally. My passion for inclusivity started at that moment. American Jews, as individuals and as a community, had devoted themselves for so long to bringing their Russian “brothers and sisters” out of the Soviet Union, but the reunion didn’t match their imaginings. Some expected the emigres to embrace American Judaism wholeheartedly; it was not meant to be. Americans were saying, ‘Here is what we can do for you.’ Instead, they should have been asking, ‘What can we be learning to do together, so that we can create a community that speaks to everybody? How can we make our communal institutions feel like home to all of us?’”
(2/5 ) “Innovation”
“In the context of my job at UJA-Federation of New York, I was lucky to be able to go to the Former Soviet Union often. Understand that for many in that community they were 70 years removed from any kind of Jewish life or education, so they brought fresh eyes to Jewish education and utilized this incredible innovation and creativity to develop models unlike any I had seen before.
In the early 2000’s, for example, I visited a school in St. Petersburg called Adain Lo. It’s an afterschool program for children, from nursery through teenage years, to learn art, dance, music, literature – all in a Jewish context. Imagine a four-story walk-up in an old Soviet building with a crumbling facade and broken steps. But inside this apartment-turned-school, the atmosphere of learning and community was so strong that it became a beautiful and warm second home for those who stepped inside. Another unique aspect of Adain Lo’s programming was its embrace of children with disabilities. At a time when people with disabilities in the Former Soviet Union were never seen in public (essentially living as shut-ins), here – in this broken down building with barely any accessible spaces – they were able to build a vibrant and inclusive space for these marginalized individuals, something virtually unheard of in that time and place. Looking back, I’ve come to understand how transformative it was for me to see this approach to community and Jewish education in action.”
(3/5) “There is Work to be Done”
“Working in the field of Jewish camp exposed certain realities about our communal institutions in a new way. During my summer visits to camps across North America (I probably visited nearly 100 in total during my tenure at the Foundation for Jewish Camp), while I certainly saw some examples of successful inclusion, I rarely saw children from what many of us might consider ‘non-normative’ backgrounds. “I would ask myself, ‘Where are the ethnically diverse kids from our Jewish communities? Why are they not in camp?’ It became my private mission everywhere I went to find people from groups that I considered to be marginalized – those with disabilities, Jews of color, those from Russian-speaking backgrounds, members of the LGBTQ community – in our communal spaces. I found that those people were missing from our communal life! Especially in New York City, where recent research shows that nearly 12% of our community is non-white or biracial, nearly 20% are from Russian-speaking backgrounds, and 1 in 5 people are living with a disability, this was unthinkable to me!
Very often, our community takes the approach of incorporating marginalized people by teaching them how to fit into our American ‘normative’ Jewish culture. But people who come from different backgrounds or are ‘not typical’ don’t always want to be ‘taught to fit in.’ They want to bring themselves and all that they have to teach and learn to the community. We need to ask them what they need or want, instead of projecting what we think they need. We have the opportunity to learn from their cultures and partner with them to make strong cohesive communities that belong to and are shared by everyone.
Why do I believe that these people are not showing up in Jewish spaces? Perhaps we don’t make them feel welcome. Until someone has a personal experience or connection- I don’t think that people focus attention on issues of inclusion.
I remember a board conversation in which we were talking about how to create a more inclusive space for people with disabilities. Someone remarked, ‘Well, when someone with a special need comes…. then we’ll figure it out.’ Though well-intentioned, that was the absolute wrong answer. Unless we make spaces that are inclusive, people won’t come. Some simple examples- unless with have siddurim with large enough print for those who may have vision impairment, and wheelchair accessible sanctuaries and ramps- how can we claim to be a welcoming space for all to explore their Judaism and feel support from their community? People can feel marginalized in so many different ways. Unless we stand up and take action to engage and include- people will feel outside the community.
I think that we’ve made changes and growth in the spaces of inclusion in the last 15 years. Camps have become stronger spaces of inclusion for children with disabilities, for sure. Still- across the board, I think there is more work to be done.”
(4/5) “Cancer Changed How I See the World”
“Nearly one year ago, I completed my treatment for breast cancer. Having cancer changed me and how I see the world. Having been ill, I have experienced in some way being on the other side of the inclusion equation. For the first time, I experienced feeling marginalized- not because anyone intended me to feel that way, but for the first time, I felt like an “other.” I was outside. It made me think about not just the
broad definitions of inclusion, but how does the Jewish community handle ‘Otherness?’ I don’t think we handle it well. It’s even taboo to be sick, or to have a sick child. As a group, we are always striving for high achievement. In general, human beings don’t handle ‘Otherness’ well- it represents things that we fear and things we can’t understand, and so we shy away from that difference that lies between us.
Before I became ill, illness frightened me; it still does. But at some point that fear needs to fall away. At some point, most people get ill and each of us needs to understand that reaching out even in the smallest of ways can make a huge difference to an individual.
Making sure your mezuzah is lower on the door so a person who might not be able to reach up high, can reach it and kiss it. Pulling someone into a community event and letting them know they are wanted. Even texting friends that are ill, to let them know you are thinking about them. These things have a tremendous impact. You are letting people know that they are seen. You are saying, ‘I see you. I care about you.’ It’s profound. Illness brought me to a new space, where I have seen the challenge of inclusion from the outside ring, as opposed to before when I was viewing it from the inside.”
(5/5) “Learning From Each Other”
“I started learning Gemara recently – it was something that I always wanted to do. After being sick, I decided to go for it and take a class. We were learning about the Haggadah while we were preparing for Pesach. My teacher talked about how in the Mishna we were learning (as one of the sources of the Haggadah) the rabbis understood that we really need to approach the Seder as a multidisciplinary event. Progressive educational theory today dedicates a lot of attention to the notion of multiple intelligences in education – there needs to be something for everyone to grab onto. That could be something experiential, or storytelling. Ultimately the Rabbis understood that for us to teach our children and share the story, “Vihigadita Livincha” – we need to understand ourselves first, to be able to know how to teach the story to our children. We need to learn to bridge the gaps in communication, understanding, and experience. We need to provide support so that the best in each of us can be a contribution to the community. Even Moshe, our leader, brought his brother to help him navigate the speech challenges that he faced. Inclusion- and pulling people from the outside, in, is a deep value in our ancient sources.
The work of The Jewish Education Project has an ultimate vision of children and families thriving as Jews in the world. We seek to help Jews flourish. The work we do is about working with educators and forward-thinking partners to ensure that Jewish education is providing those opportunities. So that people of all kinds can find meaning and community in Jewish life, no matter what that looks like. To me, that is how it all connects. There is so much about Jewish communal life that can be the source of well-being. We want to make it possible for those experiences to happen, for more people. The work that we do is creating more opportunities to utilize our strong values of Judaism and education to promote inclusive spaces where we can welcome and learn from each other.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.