This is the last in a three-part series that also appears on eJewishPhilanthropy. The interviews were conducted by Abigail Pickus, an Israel-based freelance writer.
Rachel Brody, 26, grew up in Houston, Texas, and received a B.A. from Texas State University and an M.A. from George Mason University. From an early age, she found herself drawn to working with those with special needs. But it wasn’t until her first visit to Israel in 2009 that she realized the intricate connection between her Jewishness and her dedication to inclusion.
Then in her second year of teaching special education in the Metro D.C. area, Rachel joined a pilot cohort of her fellow Teach For America corps members on the REALITY Israel Experience program, which brings a select group of corps members to Israel for 10 days to explore Israel’s education and social justice systems, gain exposure to top Israeli leaders and thinkers, and uncover and recommit to the values that drive their passion for public service. Now in its third year, REALITY Israel Experience is a project of the Schusterman Family Foundation and the Samberg Family Foundation, in partnership with Teach for America.
The trip sparked a transformation in Rachel, inspiring her to further explore the seeds of Jewish knowledge planted during the trip – particularly the concepts of tikkun olam and tzedaka – and to become more engaged with the Jewish community back home.
She spent the past two years working for KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) – a program of college-preparatory public schools serving underserved communities throughout America. Last summer, she worked for two educational organization doing teacher training in both Jordan and Estonia.
Recently, she completed a 6-week PresenTense Fellowship in Jerusalem where she fine-tuned her ideas for a new venture she is launching with her sister, Erica, called the 3E Inclusion Movement, a project that aims to make Inclusion a buzz word in the Jewish world. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., she will resume teaching special education.
Rachel spoke to eJewishPhilanthropy about REALITY, innovation and her hero.
1. You were part of the first ever REALITY Israel Experience trip in 2009. What made you decide to go on this trip?
I love to travel but I had never been to Israel. I was also really invested in Teach for America and the opportunity to further explore and develop leadership skills was really appealing to me. I was also dating someone at the time who was Jewish and I was interested in exploring more about Judaism. I am Jewish, but Judaism was more something I was introduced to once I was working and living in DC than when I was growing up or in college.
2. What take away from the REALITY trip? How did it influence you?
The REALITY experience affected me in a few ways. To begin with, it deepened my interest in the Middle East and specifically in the idea of co-existence. The whole concept of peace, of sincerely getting along, really resonated with me. Yet, the more I learned, the more confused I got, and the more confusing it became, the more interested I became in learning as much as I could.
On a social level, I formed very close and stimulating personal relationships with the people I met on the REALITY trip, and I continue to have not just friendships with them, but the kind of friendships that allow me to push myself to really learn and grow. It’s hard to establish those kinds of friendships in a year, so to establish that in 10 days is really amazing. I also found mentors from the leaders of the trip, both from Teach for America and the Schusterman Foundation. In these mentors I have found people I can really learn from and bounce ideas off of and receive support about career and personal decisions.
Finally, the REALITY experience left a profound impact on me from the religious perspective. Prior to the trip, Judaism was not something I thought about at all. I knew my family was Jewish, but that didn’t really mean anything to me. But coming to Israel, I realized that Judaism is something that I wanted to explore and learn more about. And living in Israel for the PresenTense fellowship, and also living in Lebanon last summer, made me think more about how I identify myself as a Jew. Judaism is now definitely a bigger part of my identity than it was before and it is now something that is important for me to explore.
I also never thought about social justice as connected to Judaism, which it is, and this is something I have devoted my whole life to, so now I realize that my work in social justice is also connected to my identity as a Jew.
3. Tell me about the 3E Inclusion Movement, which is a concept that aims to include people with disabilities into the Jewish community?
Through education, empowerment and engagement, the 3E Inclusion Movement is working to make Inclusion a buzz word in the Jewish world. We aim to partner with existing Jewish community centers, organizations and synagogues to provide organic inclusive communities through employment and engagement in the respective communities. We will provide the training and resources needed to successfully implement inclusive models into existing organizations.
Organizations will benefit from being a part of this cutting edge social justice movement by increasing the value of their programs in addition to engaging more individuals in their communities. Furthermore, we will provide an Inclusion Movement stamp for organizations within the Jewish community that are already providing, or working with us, to establish inclusive communities. Through this recognition, customers and philanthropists can make educated decisions about supporting organizations that act in accordance with the Jewish values of justice and empowering others to advocate for themselves.
4. Why is inclusion—making society welcoming and inclusive of those with disabilities—so important for you?
I grew up and am very close with my cousin, Gabriella, who has prader-Willi syndrome, and also a moderate intellectual disability. She is one of my best friends and growing up with her has helped me to realize how much I’ve learned from her. Seeing her struggle to be included in communities is something that has really impacted everything I’ve done with my life, from working at a camp for people with disabilities to becoming a special education teacher.
5. Who is your hero or role model and why?
My Aunt Pam, Gabriella’s mother, has been someone I have looked up to my whole life. She was the President of the International prader-Willi Organization. Beyond that, she had the ability to make everyone in the room feel important, no matter who they were or where they were coming from. All the work she did has inspired me throughout my life to work specifically with this population. I continuously strive to empower others through education to have a voice and to be recognized as individuals, no matter where they are coming from, which ties back to how my Aunt knew how to make everyone in the room feel important.
Sadly, my Aunt Pam passed away two and a half years ago, but I continue to work to live up to her ideals and to her actions. Because of her, I have chosen the field of education, which I love. I also love working with a diverse group of people and by putting those two areas together, I get the 3E Inclusion Movement, which is work that I really love doing.