For many leaders, advocates and activists in the Jewish disability inclusion movement, February is a time full of extra activities and energy for Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month (JDAIM). In Philadelphia, where I direct Jewish Learning venture’s Whole Community Inclusion initiative, we had an exciting month in which 24 synagogues of all different denominations dedicated a Shabbat service to an inclusion awareness theme. These services included speakers, panels, congregants sharing personal experiences, as well as prayers, readings and divrei Torah related to Jewish values connected to disability inclusion. It was great to hear about the impact of these services from clergy and congregants.
Of course the goal of JDAIM is to create systemic change in our Jewish schools, camps, synagogues and organizations throughout the year. This work takes motivation, energy and ongoing commitment—and will look different depending on where your community is starting in terms of attitude and accessibility. Wherever your community is now, I have 5 suggestions for how you can take the energy started during JDAIM and carry it forward through the year:
- Find partners: Changing culture takes time and collaboration. The most successful synagogues that I’ve witnessed becoming more inclusive and accessible do so through a committee or working group of lay leaders and synagogue professionals. Reach out to people with disabilities in your community, family members and also congregants who work professionally in the disability field and will likely be happy to share their expertise—educators, therapists, physicians, social workers and others in your synagogue are great resources.
- Keep out the sensory carts: I’ve heard about more synagogues putting together a “sensory cart” for a JDAIM service—it might include different fidgets and objects designed to support kids, teens or adults who have attention or sensory issues. Keep your sensory cart out all year long—you may also want to dedicate a room near your sanctuary as a “quiet room” where children who are over-stimulated can always go with their parents when they need a break at shul.
- Read, watch and share: There are lots of wonderful books and films that your congregation can read/watch and discuss together to learn more about the intersection of Jewish life and disability inclusion. Many cities host a ReelAbilities film festival and you could plan a congregational outing. Last year, I was delighted to work on this ELI Talks discussion guide—all you need is a screen and wifi to show a talk to your community and use the guide to frame your discussion.
- Connect with your Tikkun Olam/Social Justice Leaders: To support people with disabilities and their families, we all need to learn more about disability rights—the policies that govern how people access both education and adult supports. Connect with the tikkun olan/social justice leaders in your synagogue to plan an advocacy event or method of sharing important opportunities for activism and advocacy.
- Communicate about inclusion: Whatever your community offers in terms of accessibility shouldn’t be a secret! Publicize it on your website and email blasts so both prospective members and congregants know what is available. More synagogues are adding a line to all of their communications that simply states, “For questions about accessibility/accommodations, please contact X.”
I’d love to hear about the efforts in disability inclusion in your congregation. Please share in the comments below!
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY. Her latest book The Little Gate-Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents.
More from The New Normal here.