Watching them singing and dancing arm in arm on Saturday night, it was hard to tell who was enjoying the bonding experience more – the adults with special needs or their new high school friends.

The spirited dancing took place at a Havdallah ceremony marking the end of a recent shabbaton at Montreal’s Ramada Plaza that coincided with Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. The event brought some 20 Hebrew Academy students, five alumni and 10 Friendship Circle members together in an inaugural gathering that’s intended to be the first of many.

The weekend was part of a broader initiative spearheaded by Hebrew Academy High School’s Jewish Unity Mentoring Program (JUMP) team. An affiliate of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), JUMP equips North American teens with the tools and training to effect positive change as leaders in their schools and communities. Teams compete in a yearlong contest that challenges them to create, plan and execute a program for their peers or community members on one of two themes. Last year was Hebrew Academy’s first year participating in JUMP, and the team earned one of five coveted finalist spots.

This year the team chose to design programming that fosters inclusion advocacy. The shabbaton followed an in-school interactive workshop where students experienced what it feels like to live with a disability.

“We realized that most teenagers felt uncomfortable around those with special needs, which is absolutely heartbreaking,” said team member Mia Drazin, who is in Grade 10. “Through our sensitivity training and Friendship Circle shabbaton, we truly believe that many students have become more comfortable around those with special needs.”

For fellow teammate and Grade 10 student Daniel Sternthal, the weekend was an eye-opener and an opportunity to socialize with individuals with special needs as equals.

“For me the shabbaton was a new experience and it was very inspiring. It opened me up to new people and it was a milestone in my life. I learned many new skills and it was so special. At the end of the day we’re all people and everyone should be treated the same.”

Hebrew Academy High School students have volunteered at the Friendship Circle for years. In 2015, Grade 10 students even won the organization a $5,000 grant through the Youth Philanthropy Initiative. The shabbaton was the first of its kind for both institutions, however, and the students and rabbis are already looking forward to future collaborative activities.

“Inclusion is more than a program,” said Hebrew Academy Dean of Jewish Life Rabbi Eddie Shostak, who organized the weekend together the Friendship Circle’s assistant director Rabbi Leibel Rodal and NCSY Advisor Danielle Rohr. “It’s a mindset. The more we deepen and broaden this special relationship, the more we hope to empower our students to serve as models for inclusion in the broader community.”

In his years working for the Friendship Circle, Rabbi Rodal said the instant connection of the participants took him “by surprise. The students embraced their new friends with such pure joy – that truly made a huge difference. It was truly inclusive and every individual was embraced.”

For Friendship Circle members like Samantha, the weekend sparked excitement over the possibility of future get-togethers with her new friends.

‘I liked it a lot, meeting new friends from the Academy,” said Samantha, a Friendship Circle member. From my heart, it made me feel very happy, very outgoing, that’s how I felt. I liked that everyone was together in a gathering, doing activities together, like one day we can go bowling together.”

But first, the Hebrew Academy and Friendship Circle peers will reunite at a High School-wide concert in March, organized by the JUMP leadership team.

“I am so proud to have Hebrew Academy participate in the NCSY JUMP leadership program for a second year in a row,” said High School principal Dr, Laura Segall. “This incredible program asks students to identify needs within their community and develop ways in which to address them. These young men and women are the future leaders of the Montreal Jewish community. Seeing the students tackle the important issue of inclusion with such a thoughtful and impactful project fills me with confidence that the Montreal Jewish community will be in good hands.”

– by Aviva Engel, Director of Communications

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