For the first time ever, the White House is hosting an event to mark February as Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. The speakers include a rabbinical student with autism, and this week’s program draws advocates for American Jews with disabilities — an estimated 20 percent of our community — and leaders and representatives from a variety of Jewish organizations and foundations.
This high-profile event is indicative of the real progress made in the last few years in drawing attention to the need for greater inclusion in our synagogues, JCCs, camps and other Jewish settings. But advocates assert that we still have a long way to go. Awareness of the issue is increasing, they say, but inclusion too often translates into lip service rather than real change.
In practice, Jewish institutions have become more sensitive to the need for accommodating those with disabilities. But that often means holding separate programs for them. Full inclusion means offering such programs as an option, but also adapting a holistic approach, welcoming people with disabilities to any and all services and events offered in our community.
RespectAbility, a new national nonprofit working to empower people with disabilities, is working on a program with UJA-Federation of New York to improve synagogue life for those with disabilities. In so doing, it no doubt will increase sensitivity within the congregations. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbility (and founder and former president of The Israel Project), notes that where synagogues once interpreted inclusion to mean separate services on the High Holy Days for those with disabilities, some rabbis and lay leaders now appreciate that inclusion means opening all services and programs to everyone. “It’s an education process to understand that inclusive means inclusive,” Laszlo Mizrahi said.
Six New York synagogues are well into the program sponsored by UJA-Federation and the Haas Foundation that allows congregants to identify and utilize best practices, which can be shared widely. They are Union Temple, Temple Beth Emeth and Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, CSAIR (Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale) and Westchester Reform Temple. Each of congregations deserves credit for leading the community to a more enlightened future.
Jewish Foundation for Camp is given high marks for inclusion, helping parents identify the right overnight camp to meet their child’s needs. Day schools are seen as making slow progress in accommodating students with disabilities.
Much of the credit for heightening awareness and addressing the needs of Jews with disabilities goes to the Ruderman Family Foundation, based in Israel and Boston, which has made advocacy for people with disabilities a priority in recent years. The Jewish Week is proud to note that its “The New Normal” section, dedicated to issues impacting the disability community and edited by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, is the most-read blog on our website.
It’s clear that there is an ongoing need for education, discussion and debate on how best to engage organically Jews with disabilities within our community. Progress often is incremental, but it can lead to a new generation that will more readily embrace and welcome all Jews, underscoring Judaism’s central tenet that each of us is created in the image of God.