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Interview: Beth Steinberg, co-founder and co-director, Shutaf Inclusion Programs, Jerusalem

04 August 2023

‘People have moved away from the idea that disability is a punishment. I’m not sure if they truly believe it’

My co-founder, Miriam Avraham, and I are each parents to children with disabilities, now adults. We’re also camp girls: we grew up attending American Jewish day and sleepaway camps. Those were formative experiences, educationally, socially, and communally, and we wanted the same for our children, and we wanted those experiences to be inclusive — with other children, with and without disabilities.

Camp Shutaf is our biggest project. Shutaf holds other activities, including Passover Day camps, young leadership programmes for teens, and a 21-plus programme. Shutaf’s reverse-inclusion model brings together participants with diverse developmental, physical, and learning disabilities, including autism, Down’s syndrome, ADD, and ADHD.

Shutaf means “partner”. Miriam’s middle son, Ilan, chose our name based on what children say when they invite each other to play together. Inclusion, fun, and community mean a lot to us as an organisation. In the world of disability, we forget about fun as well as choice when it comes to activities and programmes.

I co-founded Shutaf Inclusion Programs in 2007 with the mission of offering professional, inclusive, informal education experiences for all children. We run year-round informal education programmes for over 250 participants, aged six to 30, with diverse needs and from diverse backgrounds. We’re also training and educating with the Shutaf Inclusion Guide, offering online resources and training workshops.

Our programmes bring together participants from a variety of backgrounds who wouldn’t typically come together in their daily lives, offering social engagement and collective identity in Jerusalem, regardless of labels, financial limitations, cultural and religious differences.

Special education is a place where Jewish and Arab children often come together. We predominantly serve Jewish children, and Shutaf is a Hebrew-speaking programme. As a small organisation, we’ve always lacked the infrastructure and finances to hire a bilingual social worker in order to do outreach into the Palestinian community. Our online inclusion guide is really useful for staff training and mentorship, and those important conversations about what it means to be an inclusive community. The website is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: we’re proud to have our resources available in three languages.

I mostly grew up in New York. My father was a pulpit rabbi, and I was proud of him, though I didn’t always love the public nature of our life. Israel was of paramount importance to him, along with leading a good Jewish life. My siblings and my parents moved to Israel gradually. We were the last to come, arriving in 2006.

Leaving NYC wasn’t easy, but living in Israel has been very interesting. It’s for sure not what I thought it was, and I’d visited often. I really didn’t know what it was like to live with the tensions here. Will we ever be a peaceful society, or get along with our neighbours?

What gets on my nerves? Ultra-religious communities moving in and telling me how to live. But, in Jerusalem, there’s a lot of choice in synagogues, and most of the time, at least in my area, it’s live and let live.

It’s a fascinating country, even right now while there are demonstrations, Right against the Left. What does that mean, when most people tend to the centre?

I’m really disappointed by religious leadership these last years. In the US, why didn’t religious leaders speak up before Trump was elected? Why were his morals acceptable to religious people? None of this exemplifies what I was always taught. I accept that at heart I am a liberal New York Jew.

Starting a new non-profit [organisation] is complicated, along with learning the lingo of applications and fighting to be supported by government agencies. But fund-raising, by far the most complex challenge, shows us the generosity of spirit that many feel about Shutaf’s work.

When I broke my leg and used crutches for a few months, I was shown first-hand how unwelcoming Jerusalem is to those with physical disabilities. I was relieved to return to walking when I could, but I haven’t forgotten what it felt like to be so forgotten as a citizen.

As a parent of a young adult with cognitive disabilities, I’m keenly aware of how much he is forgotten by so many who never take time to get to know his person and his worth. Yet he’s a happy person, fulfilled by the relationships he has and the experiences he enjoys. Who’s to say what a more fulfilled life is, really?

I absolutely think the Hebrew Bible’s view of disability still shapes attitudes and discourse. There’s language that calls people with disabilities a blessing from God, and yet it’s a blessing that seems questionable. There are laws saying people with disabilities can’t take full part in religious life — even if they are kinder, better, or more religious in their daily life. While people have moved away from the idea that disability is a punishment, I’m not sure how far they’ve gone in truly believing it.

I do work too much. Such is the nature of the life of a co-founder of a non-profit; but I love to cook, swim, read — when I can stay awake — and travel whenever possible, and hang out with my family. One day soon, I’ll set up my easel again and paint. I love to swim. The water — oceans, pools, and lakes — are my happy places.

I’m also the artistic director of Theater in the Rough, which creates theatrical experiences in Jerusalem. My eldest son and I have been partners in theatre-making since 2005. We were a home-schooling family, and he begged me to dust off my directing gloves — I’d last done such things in summer camp — and direct a show. So I did.

That led to a few years of theatre for teens in New York City. Once we were in Jerusalem, I discovered lots of community theatre, but not enough Shakespeare, and certainly not with the easy access of free or low-cost outdoor performances of New York City in the summer.

Why Shakespeare? No licensing costs. Shakespeare is open-source and easy to access for just about anyone, and in so many languages. How amazing is that?! Plus, the plays never get old. They’re always amazingly current.

Sometimes, we choose a play because it feels just so perfect for that moment. We did The Taming of the Shrew in 2017, when the combination of the #MeToo movement and the 2016 US election made me reconsider misogyny, gender politics, and women’s rights. We cast Kate and Bianca as men, and the suitors as women, a fun way to get the audience thinking.

Julius Caesar is often read in school because it’s easier to understand than a comedy, and it’s based on the life of a real person. We’ve adapted this play for this summer to include a Greek chorus. Chunks of the story have been set to music by my eldest son, who’s also the choir leader. The chorus both bears witness to the action as well as takes part as the Roman rabble and other parts that have been absorbed into song.

I always have hope for the future, even now, during what feels like a deeply complex time in Israel and throughout the world. I believe in the essential goodness of people, even though it’s often hard to see in their actions.

The familiar footsteps of my kids and spouse is the best sound to me.

I pray for peace and well-being for the world’s people.

My first experience of God was perhaps in questioning of God’s existence and my own, along with the importance of prayer and ritual in my life. Grappling with the ordinariness of life in all its holy messiness.

My dad, who died in 2009, believed in daily ritual, even if it sometimes felt habitual. He encouraged his congregants to discover the joys of sabbath observance, and nudged them to visit Israel and support it, even when they disagreed with her actions. He always had a dozen books piled up by his side, from biblical texts to the sports section. I’d like to talk over some of my current religious quandaries with him.

Beth Steinberg was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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