Most People Can’t Name a Jewish Leader with a Disability. Here’s How We Can Change That
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Most People Can’t Name a Jewish Leader with a Disability. Here’s How We Can Change That

A recent survey showed that less than 15% of Jews could even identify a single Jewish community leader with a disability. Matan Koch addresses how to change that.

Matan Koch
Matan Koch

This is part of a series of essays in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.

Like so many communities, the Jewish community hungers for leaders. The current concern about the turnover at the top of the Jewish world, at the same time as we are seeing expansion of Jewish organizations, resulted in the formation of organizations like Leading Edge is but the latest example. And yet, a 2018 survey by RespectAbility showed that less than 15% of Jews surveyed could even identify a single Jewish leader with a disability. This means that the one in five Jews (one in four adult Jews) with disabilities are being completely overlooked even as this leadership concern persists.

As we crest the 2020s, the needle has yet to move on the numbers of leaders with disabilities in the Jewish community, and yet there are encouraging signs. The 20-teens have brought us a wider range of rabbis with disabilities than ever before. Some longtime leaders are more comfortable disclosing disabilities that were previously hidden. And attitudes are changing.

As RespectAbility’s director of Jewish Leadership, I am privileged to be starting up a program to train Jewish leaders with disabilities in Los Angeles. Part of that role is to interface with the Jewish community here both to find candidates and to tell them what I’m doing. 

What is encouraging to me is that, 20 years ago I would have received outright incredulity from many Jewish leaders if I tried to convince them that Jews with disabilities could be leaders. The most brazen would have said that such an idea was ridiculous, and more, and others well-meaning but discriminatory statements implying that I was an exception to a rule.” Now, most of the leaders with whom I meet are at least open to the possibility.

I perceive three challenges:

  1.  The first is convincing generations of talented Jews with disabilities who have abandoned their passion for Jewish leadership because they were not welcome that there’s a place for them and it is time to come back. 
  2. The second is to sharply expand people’s notion of which Jews can lead, not just Jews in wheelchairs, or Jews with sensory disabilities, but Jews with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Jews of all kinds. 
  3. The third is to close the deficit of the Jewish organization to feel they don’t yet have the ability or the knowledge to embrace the talents of these Jews.

I am privileged to work on all three of these issues at RespectAbility and encourage you to check it out.

Matan Koch is a lawyer, teacher, consultant and thinker, who advocates universal inclusion, the idea that the best approach to inclusion of everyone is the same for those with and without disabilities, i.e. helping to eliminate barriers so that everyone can share their light. He developed these ideas as an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability. A graduate of Yale College and the Harvard Law School, Matan practiced law both in-house at Procter & Gamble and as an associate in the New York office of Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel, LLP. More recently, Matan founded, and is the Principal and CEO of Capitalizability LLC, working with organizations in the Jewish and secular world to promote their inclusion goals. Matan is now a Senior Advisor for RespectAbility. For more about Matan, visit www.matankoch.com.

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