Honoring Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Disability Activist
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Honoring Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Disability Activist

Last July, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Disability Advisor for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism was presented the first Thornburgh Family Award. Established by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) this year during the 25th anniversary year of the ADA, the Thornburgh Family Award recognizes a religious leader who exemplifies the spirit of the ADA. The award is named after U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who helped negotiate the ADA with Congress, and Ginny Thornburgh, a long-time advocate for people with disabilities nationally and globally who specializes in inclusion in religious communities. Dick and Ginny are the parents of a son, Peter, a man of faith, who has intellectual and physical disabilities.

Rabbi Landsberg has been a leading voice on disability rights in Washington DC and throughout the country for decades. First, in her role as Associate Director of the RAC, Rabbi Landsberg along with Rabbi David Saperstein, lobbied for the passage of the ADA twenty-five years ago. Then, after surviving a traumatic brain injury in 1999, she returned to the RAC as the Senior Advisor on Disability Rights in order to strengthen the Reform Movement’s advocacy for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to ensure that all people have equal access to religious and civic life. She co-founded the Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of national Jewish movements and organizations advocating for civil and human rights for people with disabilities. She also founded and co-chairs the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (CCAR) "Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion." She co-founded Hineinu: Jewish Community for People of All Abilities, a historic and innovative collaboration of the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform Jewish Movements, as well as Chabad, through which disability professionals share resources, support, and direction in order to increase disability inclusion in Jewish life for people of all abilities.

Rabbi Landsberg's honoring was as part of the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC) of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) program, "From Access to Belonging: An Interfaith Service Celebrating the Progress and Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act." People of all faiths and all abilities came together at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Washington DC to commemorate the achievements mandated by this landmark legislation.

The Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition is a diverse, nonpartisan coalition of 33 national religious organizations from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh traditions whose core spiritual values affirm the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.

In her acceptance speech Rabbi Landsberg recalled, “A number of religious groups tirelessly advocated for the ADA. However, after its passage, I was surprised to learn that due to pressure from other religious groups, whatever their reasons, houses of worship were, in fact, exempt from and therefore did not have to comply with significant portions of the ADA. Ultimately, because all of our religious groups, both pro and con, did not have the law looking over our shoulders, our congregations were all very slow to make necessary changes both physical and emotional.”

She continued,“The ADA mandates access to public buildings but it cannot mandate access to the human heart. As is often said, ‘Before ramping buildings, you have to ramp attitudes.’”

She added, “Let us vow to raise the consciousness of houses of worship wherever they are so when they meet such a child or an adult or a family, they already have their hearts and arms wide open evidenced by the fact that they have fully accessible buildings, programs and educational opportunities open to all, inclusive social events and more. Our message must be that people of faith who happen to have a disability want to worship in community and contribute their all as full human beings. They want and deserve to belong.”

In a nod to congregational hiring policies, she added that some people with disabilities go on to seminary. “They want and deserve to be hired to lead our congregations. Houses of worship must consider hiring people with disabilities for open positions that match their talents. Inclusion begins at home.”

Shelly Christensen, MA literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Shelly’s work as founder and Executive Director of Inclusion Innovations, where she provides training, organizational and community development, and strategic planning so Jewish organizations and communities around the world can become more welcoming and inclusive, is the standard in the field of sacred community inclusion. She is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. Shelly and her husband Rick are the parents of three children, one of whom has a disability.

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