Look at the leadership of a Jewish communal organization or synagogue and it’s unlikely you will see a leader with a disability. That’s one of the findings of a new survey released by disability advocacy organization RespectAbility.
Only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities in New York know of a person with a disability in a position of communal leadership. Only 7 percent of New York Jews with no disability know of a person with a disability in leadership. Among Jews with no disability nationally, 10 percent know of a person with a disability in leadership. Only 12 percent of Jewish New Yorkers in the disability community said they “feel that people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on the boards and committees of your faith-based institutions.”
More than 4,000 people responded to the survey, which was conducted over email and social media over the past six months. Among the respondents were 172 Jews with disabilities in the New York area as well as 75 Jews with no disability in the New York area. The majority of the respondents were Jews outside of the New York area. The survey was sponsored by the Genesis Prize Foundation as well as several Jewish federations across the country.
“Overall, Jews with and without disabilities are not fully satisfied with the level of inclusion in the Jewish community, but they do see things as getting better,” said Gabrielle Einstein-Sim, one of RespectAbility’s New York-based board members who is active in the Jewish community.
This was not the first survey in which RespectAbility studied the Jewish community’s efforts on inclusion of people with disabilities; the last survey on the topic was conducted in 2013. Since then, awareness of mental health issues, what some call an “invisible disability,” has changed drastically. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure in the Jewish community to be perfect,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility.
There has also been a marked improvement in inclusion since the 2013 survey, said Laszlo Mizrahi, but there is still work to be done in making the community’s leadership more inclusive.
“People who are Jewish and have a disability feel that they can participate,” said Laszlo Mizrahi. “But they don’t feel the same type of ownership or feel that they’re at the forefront.”
“If you see it, you can be it — and today Jews with disabilities need more role models with disabilities in leadership in the Jewish community. Many also want to be recruited, trained and empowered to make the Jewish community stronger, just like anyone else,” said Shelley Cohen, co-founder of RespectAbility and leader of the Jewish Inclusion Project.
According to the current survey, 21 percent of Jewish respondents have a mental health issue or share a household with someone who does. Among Jewish New Yorkers, the number rose to 28 percent. “There is an epidemic of suicides in the Jewish community and we have to address this,” said Laszlo Mizrahi.