At the Princeton Center for Jewish Life, Rabbi Ira Dounn was heading out for the night one evening last February, when he ran into then-first-year student Naomi Hess in the lobby.
“Hey, did you know it’s Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month?” Dounn recalls her saying, catching him off-guard. “We should do a Shabbat for that.”
His answer may have been short and simple, but for Hess, it would make all the difference.
“Yeah. We should,” the senior educator remembers replying.
Countless meetings, 13 months, and one Hillel International grant later, around 180 people were seated in the CJL’s main dining hall, listening to Hess’ opening remarks for the second annual Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Shabbat dinner, held on Feb. 28.
“I want to thank the CJL for helping me make this idea a reality,” she said. “I think about how much the CJL is an inclusive space for everyone regardless of ability, race, whatever… it’s really a home, for all of us on campus.”
Hess said her idea grew out of her appreciation for the other affinity Shabbats to which the CJL historically plays host: Soul Food Shabbat, Pride Shabbat, J-Lats Shabbat, J-Asians. A student journalist on campus herself, Hess even wrote about two of those events for the Jewish Week. But one group — one particularly important to her, as a person with a disability — was noticeably missing from the festive cannon.
“I heard about Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which is every February, and I thought — well, that’s an intersectionality that we haven’t explored yet,” she explained.
In its first 2019 iteration, Hess will be the first to admit, the Shabbat was “low-key.” Part of the reason: she had the idea two weeks before it happened. Dounn and Hess had to scramble to put the event together; the two invited the director of the Office of Disability Services to give the keynote, and Hess herself would deliver the student speech customary at CJL Shabbats.
Dounn recalled Hess being worried her voice would not project loudly enough. A few days before the dinner, she practiced her address in a not-quite-empty dining hall.
“I remember some of the dining hall staff were sitting there, and they were getting emotional listening to her,” said Dounn, who says he knew then the event would be a resounding success.
It was. And last Friday, now after a year of thoughtful planning, an even bigger one.
This time, Hess was determined to bring more students’ voices into the picture. Naomi Frim-Abrams, a first-year who volunteered with an accessibility non-profit during her gap year in Indonesia, gave the student speech. She discussed the long ways the country still has to go in terms of accessibility; buses, for instance, usually have spaces for wheelchairs, but each bus stop requires climbing five steps to access it.
“Inclusion does not mean being someone else’s Tzedakah project,” she concluded. “The first step to creating inclusive spaces is opening your eyes.”
Another speaker took a little more work to get there.
Hess participated in Birthright Israel’s “No Limits” trip last summer, a trip specifically designed for young people with disabilities. On the trip, she met Jake Hytken, once a participant and now a staffer with a disability similar to her own. She recalled feeling so impressed with his breadth of knowledge about the disability and inclusion community that the idea came naturally.
“I told him at the end of the trip — hey, maybe you can come to Princeton,” she said. With the help of a Hillel grant that covered Hytken’s hotel stay and flight from California, that one-off phrase uttered half-way across the world became a reality.
In a brief speech at the dinner itself and in an hour-long discussion afterwards, Hytken spoke about invisible disabilities and the importance of allyship, always emphasizing the need for open dialogue — “you can ask me anything,” “no need walk on eggshells.”
“Who I am is actively dependent on my environment,” he said. “So, be the loud person in the room who says ‘Is this going to work for everyone?’” The burden of being vocal about accessibility issues should not always fall on those with disabilities, he added.
According to Hytken, “A lot of times people don’t want to talk about disability because it reminds them of their own mortality.” To that hesitation, he had a response “that needs to go on a bumper sticker.”
“Don’t ever worry about saying goodbye, just worry about saying hello.”
Hess hopes attendees walked away from the event having learned something.
“I hope people realize we have to make sure that the world and the community, both on and off campus, is as accessible as possible from the start, instead of kind of fixing it afterwards — because then it’s so much harder,” she explained.
To Dounn, themed Shabbats, like this one, are about engendering empathy.
“It’s an opportunity for parts of our community to host everyone around their table and explain what it’s like to be in their shoes,” he said.
Hess has two more years at Princeton to keep bringing the CJL community to her table. So is she planning to continue the now-annual Shabbat tradition?
Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a sophomore at Princeton University and edits for The Daily Princetonian. She grew up in a Russian Jewish family and is passionate about criminal justice, Jewish pluralism, and independent journalism.