Fred Rogers wasn’t Jewish, but his philosophy of respect for others comes right out of the Torah. Mr. Rogers’ mantra — “Won’t you be my neighbor” — will also be on full display at the 2020 Songleader Boot Camp (SLBC) Feb. 16 to 18, presented by the Jewish Community Center.
Actually, the theme of this year’s SLBC is a slight variation: “Won’t you be our neighbor.” It’s an intentional and significant statement about the power of inclusion, according to Elisa Recht, the event’s director of education and programming.
“The last couple of years we have had sessions on inclusion,” Recht said. “This year it is an area of growth and a focus for us, and it’s happening in a few different ways. One is, it’s part of our overall theme. What that means is to make sure that we are inclusive when it comes to loving all of those around us.
“The second area is a major focus in terms of program offerings, with a wide variety of sessions including a session on camping and inclusion,” Recht said. “We’ll have a session on using visual tools for inclusion, and one on writing an inclusion statement. We’ll also have a session called ‘Singing in the Dark,’ which will be presented by Charlie Kramer, who is legally blind.”
The sessions on camping, visual tools and inclusion statements will be presented by Elana Naftalin-Kelman, the founding director of Rosh Pina, which certifies Jewish institutions as inclusive of people with disabilities. Naftalin-Kelman said this year’s theme sends a message that inclusion is an important aspect of community building.
“In order to be radically inclusive of all types of people, you need to take inclusion seriously,” Naftalin-Kelman said. “I clearly believe in the benefits of an inclusive community and an inclusive Jewish community. To take the theme of inclusion as the theme for this year’s Songleader Bootcamp is both admirable and necessary.”
Something as seemingly simple as writing an inclusion statement can reap rewards for an institution, she said.
“You go to any Jewish institution and they’re going to tell you they are warm and welcoming, and they want to be inclusive of everybody,” Naftalin-Kelman said. “At the same time, to think about what that really means can be a very powerful statement. I’ll be taking them through a conversation about ‘What does inclusion look like at your institution?’ and ‘What does it mean and how do we talk about it?’ If you don’t know how to talk about it, nobody else is going to know that’s your focus.”
This year is the 11th SLBC, and it’s evolved since the first event when 40 people attended. Now, the attendance tops 400, with participants coming from as far away as Australia. The overall purpose of the bootcamp has also changed, although music and song are the thread that ties it all together, Recht said.
“What we’ve grown into is what we call a Jewish education and leadership conference where music is woven throughout and used as a tool for connection, inspiration and elevating our Jewish lives,” she said.
That’s the purpose of adding two chavurot (fellowship) tracks on camping, one of which is supported by the Staenberg Family Foundation and the J. It will offer an overnight and day Jewish camping experience centered around music. The second chavurah will partner with the Ramah National Commission. It will focus on prayer and song.
Inclusion will be apparent in many areas of the 2020 SLBC, Recht said. That includes using larger fonts for name tags and programs, to increase legibility for participants who are visually impaired. Another important inclusivity initiative at the SLBC will be a buddy system, intended to make teen attendees feel part of a team.
“We didn’t want to do a separate track for people with disabilities,” Recht said. “We wanted them to be part of a group and work together. So in the teen chavurah, everybody will have a buddy. They won’t necessarily know which one has a disability, and we’re not highlighting it. We’re saying everybody should have someone to go to the sessions with, to sit with at a meal and sing with at the song sessions.
“Our son Kobi will be a leader in one of the groups. He will make sure that everyone in his group will feel comfortable.”
Kobi Recht, 18, already has a little experience in this area. For the past two years at Parkway Central High School, he’s participated in the Best Buddy program. Best Buddies International creates one-to-one friendships for individuals with disabilities. Kobi’s best buddy is a fellow student named Timmy.
“It’s really elevated Kobi’s life and that’s a beautiful thing,” Elisa Recht said. “We wanted to create a similar atmosphere at the SLBC. It’s similar to what Camp Ramah does, where they have campers with special needs paired up with other campers. The difference for us is, instead of buddying two teens up, we will have groups of five. After talking to parents of teens with disabilities, they were grateful that their children were going to be a part of this, but they said, ‘My kid just wants to feel like everybody else.’”