Category Archives: Jewish Faith


“I’m a bit nervous”, I confessed to my husband as I prepared for my speaking engagement at Temple Israel in Norfolk, VA.  Despite the friendship, support and encouragement I have received from Rabbi Michael Panitz over the past 10 years as I worked to start and develop Faith Inclusion Network, I had actually never been asked to speak there or for any other local Jewish congregations.  Would they really be interested in hearing some of my story? Would they accept and welcome me, a Catholic Christian, to be a part of their service?

I prepped my daughter’s caretaker and headed over in plenty of time to hear some of the beginning of Temple Israel’s Disabilities Awareness Shabbat. February is designated as Jewish Disability, Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month in our country and I had been asked to share a few words about inclusion as both a parent of child with a disability and the leader of Faith Inclusion Network.

When I arrived at Temple Israel, I was immediately greeted by a friend I already knew from the disability community; a mom who shares a similar parenting journey. Others I didn’t know smiled warmly, offering words of welcome and I immediately relaxed.

My short talk was titled, “Acceptance”, a word that was recently added to the national Jewish inclusion effort for their 10-year anniversary. Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month is celebrated and experienced around the country, due to the efforts of people like Shelly Christensen, one of the founders of this effort and also one of Faith Inclusion Network’s national board advisers.

Karen Jackson and Claudia Mazur

It didn’t take long for me to recognize that the Temple Israel congregation is a very accepting community. People with various types of disabilities dotted the congregation and several individuals affected by disability participated by leading prayers during this Disability Awareness Shabbat. It did not escape my notice that the congregation was also very accepting of me, a guest to their worship time.

After the service I joined members of the congregation for lunch, sharing stories with a few other parents who have children with disabilities. The word “acceptance” floated in and out of our conversations. The feeling of community was strong and encouraging.

Rabbi Michael Panitz and K. Jackson

More than ten years ago, I reached out to many people in the Hampton Roads community, including Rabbi Panitz, to ask the question, “What can be done to make our faith communities more inclusive?” The answer is reinforced again and again in the opportunities I have had to visit and speak with congregations, sharing and listening to stories of welcoming and acceptance. We can all make a difference with inclusion efforts when we begin by being open and accepting of people who may be different in some way. Acceptance is the first step towards inclusion.

Thank you to Temple Israel for your kind invitation and welcome, your understanding and demonstration of inclusion and for choosing to accept individuals and families affected by disability.


Karen j.

Essay Contest Blog Series-Blog #1

In preparing for this year’s Gifts of the Heart Gala, I was looking for an opportunity to highlight the voices of those who identify as having a disability. After all, our organization is about inclusion and the most important voice for disability inclusion efforts is (or should be) those who have disabilities themselves. Thus, in addition to our keynote speaker, Lisa Olson, who spoke eloquently about acceptance at the gala, the first Gifts of the Heart Essay Contest was born. 

I really had no idea whether or not anyone would submit an essay but we had a few things going for us. Number one, our good friend and sponsor, John Koehler of Koehler Publishing  offered up the $100 winning prize. Two, I had a vision that our winner and many of the participants would be recognized at our gala on March 11.  

In the end, we had six people enter the contest to share their own ideas of “faith” or what their faith community means to them. Additionally, we had two more writings submitted which we will also include in this mini blog series. 

All the entries were wonderful…beautiful in their own way and exactly what we had hoped for! These first two come from Ashley Bruno and Stephen Cox. 


Karen Jackson, Executive Director, FIN

“What my Catholic faith means to me” by Ashley Bruno

“It means I like to go to St. Matts for adoration and rosary because I like to grow closer to God and Jesus. I like to go to St. Matts for Mass because I like to have my heart filled with joy. I like to help out at Meal Ministry at Courthouse United Methodist and I like to go to the Diocese Youth Conference in Richmond.”




ALL GOD’S PEOPLE by Stephen Cox

My name is Stephen.  I am 55 years old.  I have a very rare syndrome, Rubenstein-Taybi Syndrome, named for the two doctors who wrote a research paper about it in 1963, the same year I was born.  People with RTS aren’t all alike.  But they often share some of the things that are hard for us.

Part of my special type is that I have trouble with speech.  My brain thinks the words I want to say, but the way my mouth is made is al little different and my brain and mouth don’t always work together.  I like to say short phrases, but I usually speak too fast because I want my words to sound like the words feel in my brain.  You just have to tell me to slow down.  Sometimes you have to ask me to spell words you can’t understand.

I understand most everything I experience.  I can make good decisions and can figure out how to solve problems, but as an adult I am timid about going to new places and taking part in new experiences because it takes longer for my brain to process those unfamiliar things.  Still, I learn new things every day and learning is one of my favorite things.

I have never written an essay before, and when my mom asked me to tell about my church, I asked her to tell you for me.  I know she wrote this for me and she read it to me when she finished.  She even made some changes I asked for.

I go to Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church.  I belong to a Christian family and I was baptized when I was a baby.  I went to Sunday School when I was a little boy.  I worried that my baby sister might have problems like me.  I kept asking “Baby grow up to be a big huge girl?”  It took a while for Mom to understand me, but she promised that our baby would be just fine and that I would keep learning and growing all my life.  I asked the same questions when that same little sister was expecting her babies.

I was older than the other members of my Sunday School Class, but we were friends anyway.  When it was time for my Sunday School class to learn about being grown up members of the church, I wanted to be a member.  I had to go talk to the Bishop, but after he asked me some questions, he said I was as ready to be confirmed as the others in my class.

These days I like to sit in the same church pew every Sunday, but I also like to stand closer to the altar when it is time for communion.  When we say the “Our Father, who art in Heaven” and get to the part about “give us this day our daily bread,” I like to put my hands out just like I do when Father Cameron gives me the bread.  Nobody tells me to sit down and they shake my hand and some of my friends give me a hug.  Everyone always says they miss me when I am sick and they try to understand what I say to them.  Lots of times they do understand!

My mom tells me that the people at church with me are called “parishioners,” but I call them “all God’s people,” because that’s who they really are.

© 2018 Faith Inclusion Network

#SITD2016-A personal story about the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability


I arrived at the Grand Rapids airport at 10:30 pm on Sunday evening somewhat anxious and already quite exhausted. I still needed to connect with someone I didn’t know, rent a car and drive us to Holland, MI, a 40 minute ride to the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability at Hope College. A few days before the trip, my daughter needed unexpected minor surgery. This meant an overnight stay in the hospital amidst much worrying and prayers, not to mention a quick rearranging of schedules. Let’s just say, I was not in a good mental or physical state upon my late arrival in Michigan.
That all began to change, however, the moment I spotted my friend, Shelly Christensen1039at the airport. Shelly, who is from Minnesota and is a personal friend, FaceBook friend and National Adviser for the FIN Board of Directors, gave me a big hug, exclaimed “Karen!” and then immediately asked, “How is Samantha?” I don’t know which made me feel better; seeing a friendly face after a long day or her concern over my daughter (she knew about hospitalization from FB) and how I was handling it all.  Well, yes I do. The support from a fellow special needs mom and disability advocate was an incredible encouragement. Shelly decided to come with me so we found our new friend Janine and headed to Holland.
The fun continued when once at the college, Shelly couldn’t get into her room. We decided it would be easiest for her to bunk with me for the night and at 2:00 am we turned out the lights and said good night.
By 7:30 am I was headed to breakfast, but not before I discovered that another good friend, this one a wonderful author and speaker, Jolene Philo was my suite partner. “Hi Jolene!” Shelly and I exclaimed at the bathroom door. More hugs and smiles.
We all headed down to breakfast and enjoyed reunions with more friends. David Morstad and Erik Carter were also attending SITD. The chance to talk with all three of these national FIN board advisors at the same time would come a little later in the day, but for now, hugs and a chance to catch up on personal lives was so much more important and meaningful.

Erik Carter, Shelly Christensen and David Morstad, FIN Board Advisers, with Karen Jackson, FIN Executive Director

Erik Carter, Shelly Christensen and David Morstad, FIN Board Advisers, with Karen Jackson, FIN Executive Director

Monday and Tuesday’s presentation were just amazing. How often does one get to hear from people like Erik Carter, Bill Gaventa, Hans Reinders, Tom Reynolds, Darla Schumm, John Swinton, Todd Billings, Tom Boogaart, Ben Conner and Randy Smit all in the course of a few days? “Yes, yes, yes”, I thought, over and over again. These people were here in Holland to share their knowledge and their passion and I felt so grateful for the chance to be a part of the whole conference.
By Monday night I had no business going out after dinner in my overly tired state, but who could resist the chance to hang out with the girls? New friends and old, the pub called and we stayed out late, just like college students (and we are all past college age, I assure you!) So much fun after a full day.
As we meandered back to our dorm, Shelly and I spotted a new arrival. “Jeff!!!!!! We screamed, greeting our friend Jeff McNair who had just arrived from California. Jeff accepted this overly zealous greeting with his usual humble attitude. “The girls always greet me like this!” he bragged with a smile. Another few minutes and I finally gave in and headed to my room. Time to prepare for the next day.
Tuesday was my opportunity to share by leading the opening worship time and then later presenting about FIN in a break out session. Although I felt both went well, the experience of leading the Morning Prayer and Meditation time was extremely meaningful for me. 20160524_084112_001Performing music at the Institute provided a chance to fuse my passions for music and disability work as well as experience another wonderful chance to bring others together, this time in song.
At one point, when leading the singing of the song “Let’s Share a Journey”, a song that intends to capture the importance of faith and community, I was almost started crying. To hear the 100 or so members of the audience singing “Let’s share a journey, the way it should be, let’s share a journey, you and me…” together was incredibly moving. I knew those lyrics and melody were given to me by our great and wonderful God-not my words at all but a gift to share. This will always be a treasured memory.

More amazing presentations and opportunities for fellowship filled the rest of the day. After the Tuesday afternoon prayer service, Anne Masters, another FIN friend who is from New Jersey, invited me out for a stout. 20160524_175852By the time we made our way to the Holland Brewery, we had a nice little group together. The night continued in much the same way, meeting up with people and making connections and starting friendships that will continue, I hope, for years to come. 20160524_175841

5:00 am came quite early on Wednesday. I was fortunate to have Jolene along on the ride to the airport. We chatted like old friends and parted quickly at the airport, both of us in a hurry to catch our flights. My trip back to Norfolk was fairly short and uneventful. I was glad to head back home and see my family.

Conferences are always fun; the combination of learning and engaging with others is an important part of many people’s development in their chosen fields. I went to the Institute expecting to hear from some great teachers and speakers, to see friends and meet new people who are also passionate as I am about faith and disabilities inclusion. What I didn’t expect was to experience an unparalleled camaraderie, moment upon moment of meaningful discussions, hilarious stories and the love and encouragement of friends that are doing incredible work across the country. Thank you to Bill Gaventa, Ben Connor and others who put together the year’s Institute. And a special blessing to all who attended #SITD2016-may your work in faith communities around the country and the world be fruitful and filled with joy. Hope to see you again soon!

See our FIN FB page for a full album of photos at

Interview #8 Shelly Christensen


I initially “met” Shelly on the phone, when I called with some questions related to the inclusion of people with disabilities into Jewish communities.  She was incredibly generous with her time and, some 40 minutes later, I felt like I had a new friend in Minnesota.  Not long afterward, we got the chance to meet in person at an AAIDD conference and now we talk frequently since she is a Faith Inclusion Network National Board Adviser.  

Shelly has a lot of experience as a faith and disability advocate, traveling across the country to speak and be involved in many large Jewish and interfaith initiatives.  But what I appreciate personally about Shelly is her gift of encouragement.  I always come away from our conversations feeling wonderful!  Thank you for that beautiful gift and for all you continue to do to further the national faith and disability movement, Shelly.

Interview with: Shelly Christensen, MA, FAAIDD
Founder and CEO, Inclusion Innovations
Author,  Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities Website:

Question: How old was your child when he was diagnosed with autism?

Shelly: Until Jake started Kindergarten we thought that he was our adorable quirky kid. Whether he was telling an inebriated customer in my Dad’s bar to settle down or his grandpa would throw him out, or declaring that “Gone With the Wind” was his favorite book when he was preschool Student of the Week, it never occurred to me that his brain wiring was cause for a diagnosis. During his Kindergarten year my husband Rick and I carted our three sons to a family therapist to help us figure out how to keep up with the demands of family and work. Within the first five minutes of observing the five of us she informed us that Jacob seemed to have ADHD, to which I replied, “What did I do to cause it?” I didn’t even know what ADHD was! Overwhelmed by raising three kids, an 8 year old, a 5 year old and an infant, working a full time job, and dealing with the death of my beloved grandmother and my dad’s cancer diagnosis seemed almost too much to bear. The best advice I received from a good friend was “put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.” I did just that and eventually I found a semblance of new normal and realized that life will go on regardless of how you navigate it. I looked inward and realized that while circumstances had changed, I was still the same resilient soul I’d always been. And so we went through the twists and turns over the years until Jake was in 10th grade. I had decided during that time that Jake didn’t have ADHD, but nothing really fit his quirky personality and unique way of seeing the world.

Question: Can you share how you felt when you received that diagnosis?

Shelly: Asperger syndrome was not a new disability but inclusion in the DSM was. When Jake’s confirmation teacher, a child psychologist, told me about Asperger syndrome and suggested we go for a diagnosis, I immediately went online and began reading about it. It was a description of how Jake navigated the world around him, and I knew in my core that he has Asperger syndrome. He was diagnosed shortly after that. I recall the feeling of relief and of peace in knowing, and realized that while a diagnosis didn’t change who Jake is, it helped all of us understand him better, and support him better.

My three sons

Shelly’s three sons

Question: How has living with autism affected your family?

Shelly: I don’t know if life would have been any different without autism for my family. We are all unique individuals who love each other and respect each other’s way of being in the world. I think I understand a lot more about how unique each and every person is. It has helped me to think about how we are all created in God’s Image which, in my limited understanding, means that God must have so many very very diverse qualities!

Question: What is currently your biggest challenge as an autism mom?

Shelly: Patience as the journey continues toward living independently with a future of hope. It takes time and there is no proscribed schedule.
Question: What is currently your greatest joy as an autism mom?

Shelly: Jake is starting a new journey as a student in an 8 week information technology course followed by an internship and hopefully full time employment. Seeing how he has matured and taken responsibility for his choices, how kind, loving, and absolutely insightful, and funny he is the gift that keeps on giving.
Question:  Has autism affected your faith? Yes. If yes, how so?

Shelly: Many times I’ve been so angry at God. “Why me? Why my child?” I railed at God, cried, yelled, cursed. And then one day I realized that maybe God was hurting as much as I was. I realized that God had nothing to do with Jake having autism. I think God may have been hurting because the world is so unfair at times to people who have disabilities. I realized in that moment that God and I were partners and then I felt nothing but gratitude for having my faith and my beliefs. Since then I have come to believe that each of us has a purpose, and if we act as God’s partners, we will discover within ourselves that purpose. I don’t know whether God gives us a purpose or not. But I do believe that if we listen to that small voice within, then someday we will hear what it says and it will guide us to that purpose and that place.
Question: Is there anything else you would like to share about being an autism mom?

Shelly: I don’t think of myself as an autism mom. I am a mom of three remarkable men who continue to give me great joy. Each one of them continues to surprise me in their own unique ways. I do recognize that I am someone who others see as a mom of someone who has a disability who has navigated the unmapped journey and made meaning of it. I know that opening the doors for other moms to tell their stories, share their hopes, dreams and fears is more important than ever.

Jake and Eli

Jake with new nephew, Eli


How our Differently-Abled Daughter brought Blessing to our Congregation

Rabbi Michael Panitz
Temple Israel, Norfolk

As a rabbi, I have had many opportunities to observe the various culture of community that congregations form. Some are accepting of diversity, some are fearful of it and closed off.As the father of aneurologically-handicapped adult daughter, I have had a great emotional, as well as professional, investment in finding– and promoting– openness to (and indeed celebration of) human diversity in the congregations that I serve. My wife, Sheila, and I raised all of our children, including Emily, within the congregation, and the congregants embraced her. My part of the story, therefore, was to model and even to expect inclusion. That has been a success story, and that in itself would be worth stressing. But there is more: What neither my training nor my professional abilities have prepared me for, however, is the degree to which Emily herself entered the life of our congregation, and the transformations that she herself wrought.

Emily came to our congregation when she was 11. Now she is 29. In that time span, the congregation has enthusiastically celebrated her bat mitzvah, her high school graduation, and many birthdays. Even as I rejoiced in Emily’s acceptance, a part of me wondered– was this a special favor to a popular rabbi and spouse? Or was this a genuine rejoicing in Emily’s life?

Emily supplied the answer. She herself organized the members of the daily chapel service into a supper club. Once a month, they go out together, usually to a restaurant that she has recommended (although the process is ultimately democratic). That evening service is by far the best attended of the month! Emily is the social secretary for the group, sending out reminders, negotiating the occasional date changes, keeping people in the loop.

Children need to declare their independence of their parents. Developmentally delayed children do, as well, although it is obviously harder for them, and harder in a different way for their parents. Here, too, Emily found a way: At our Shabbat services, which she attends regularly, she sits with a circle of her friends– adults, ranging in age from slightly older than her to a generation older. There is no age-segregation in her social world.

Emily maintains her circle in the Shabbat luncheon that we put on after each Sabbath service. While Sheila and I check up on her, invariably, she does not need our help at those moments, because she has arranged everything with her circle of friends.

Are they taking care of her out of noblesse oblige? I observe closely and I ask, to confirm what I see: these folks are happy and proud to be her friend. Friends do for each other. If one friend is not as physically able as another, it is only natural for the more mobile or dexterous one to use those blessings to help the other friend. And it is also only natural for the less mobile or dexterous one to do her part– to bestow a smile or a thank you, all the more meaningful for its being totally guileless.

Emily has given our congregation the opportunity to see the divine image in each of us, to cultivate a soul-satisfying relationship not based on have a commensurate set of abilities with the other person, but simply because we are all children of God. Therefore, it is no hyperbole to say that she has been a blessing to the congregation, even as they have been a blessing to her.