SEPTEMBER 20, 2018 – There is a commandment in Leviticus that prohibits placing “stumbling blocks before the blind.”
Though this line has been subject to many interpretations, for Brett Lubarsky, associate director of the Jewish Teen Initiative of Boston, it’s a call to remove barriers for people in difficult situations.
“Our tradition teaches and encourages us to remove the stumbling blocks that are before people,” said Lubarsky. “In the community, there are a number of teens who for any number of reasons have not been able to connect or find the right niche.”
JTI had those teens in mind when it partnered with the Ruderman Family Foundation to create what is known as the Ruderman Peer Inclusion Fellows for JTI’s three-year-old Peer Leadership Fellows program. The new inclusion track helps train JTI’s Peer Fellows – teens in grades 10 and 11 who help connect other Jewish teens with meaningful events, projects, and groups – to remove the various barriers that can prevent full engagement.
“There are a number of wonderful and important programs and opportunities for teens with different types of disabilities,” said Lubarsky. “But no one often says, ‘Hey, come do this with all of us.’”
Prior to the Ruderman partnership, JTI had to hire additional staff to support inclusion. Now, the new Peer Inclusion cohort of JTI’s Peer Fellows will fill that role. With help from the Ruderman Foundation, 10 teens from around the Boston area have been trained to serve as companions for teens with disabilities at events where they might otherwise feel left out.
“This initiative is looking into mainstream inclusion into events that already exist,” said Lubarsky. “To give an example, if your temple youth group was having a bowling event, and somebody didn’t feel comfortable for whatever reason … having a buddy would allow them to have a successful experience.”
Lubarsky noted it remains to be seen if Peer Fellows will accompany the same teen to different events, or if they will buddy with different teens on an as-needed basis.
“I think it’s really going to depend on the needs of the individuals,” he said. “We want to personalize it. I think the goal is to be able to develop those relationships.”
Peer Fellows attend regular trainings on how to build relationships and establish trust with teens of all abilities. On Sept. 15-16, JTI welcomed its 40 new Peer Fellows, including the 10 in the inclusion cohort, for a weekend-long training at the Warren Conference Center and Inn in Ashland. The training covered, among other aspects of community leadership and engagement, how to effectively communicate, particularly in the age of smartphones. Lubarsky referred to it as “relational engagement” and “sensitivity training.”
“What we are encouraging them to do, and helping provide them with the tools and skills to be able to do, is to have conversations in real life,” said Lubarsky. “[We’re teaching them to] build relationships by listening, discussing, empathizing … and building connections with another person.”
Much of the training incorporated simulated role-playing activities that anticipated the challenges they might encounter.
The current cohort of Peer Leadership will begin their work in November. They each receive an annual stipend of $500, and it is stressed that this is a job, as opposed to a volunteer position.
According to JTI Executive Director Adam Smith, the inclusion fellows are Peer Fellows who specialize in inclusion. “The whole infrastructure of peer leadership has to do with prioritizing relationships and connection first,” said Smith.