Poll: Most NY Jews Don’t Know Any Rabbis Or Staff With Disabilities
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Poll: Most NY Jews Don’t Know Any Rabbis Or Staff With Disabilities

Results of new RespectAbility poll on inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities in America.

Discussing inclusion issues in Jewish community and beyond. Courtesy of the Genesis Prize Foundation.
Discussing inclusion issues in Jewish community and beyond. Courtesy of the Genesis Prize Foundation.

Washington, D.C.— Over 4,000 respondents participated in a RespectAbility survey focused on inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities in America. This includes over 900 individuals who self-disclose that they are a person with a disability. This includes 172 Jews in the disability community in New York, and an additional 75 with no disability connection.

The Jewish respondents with disabilities in New York and across the nation point to a lack of people with disabilities in leadership roles as clergy or staff at Jewish institutions and do not fully feel welcomed to serve as leaders in lay positions in the Jewish community either. Only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities know of a person with a disability in leadership. Only 7 percent of the New York Jews with no disability connection who were polled know of a person with a disability in leadership. Nationally it is slightly higher at nearly 10 percent. Only 12 percent of New York Jews in the disability community answer “yes” that they “feel that people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on the boards and committees of your faith-based institutions.” This is also 6 points lower than the national results of 18 percent.

Said Shelley Cohen, co-founder of RespectAbility and leader of the Jewish Inclusion Project, “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.”

New York numbers track with the opinions of the national sample of Jewish respondents (2,570), that a series of issues are all seen as relevant in the following order of importance. Protecting access to healthcare, Medicaid, and SSDI for people with disabilities (44%), and enabling them to get the education and jobs that they need to succeed (30%), fighting stigmas (18%), and increasing inclusion for PWDs in faith based institutions (8%).

Nationally, 85 percent of Jewish respondents are concerned about increasing inclusion of people with disabilities in their faith community, including 35 percent who are extremely concerned. Among New York Jews with no disability connection, only 20 percent are extremely concerned. Still, while it is important to them to increase inclusion, it is also clear that of primary concern are healthcare, education and jobs.

Respondents ranked many areas of Jewish life as very important to extremely important to include Jews with disabilities, from Jewish Day School to holiday programs, to youth groups, and assisted living.

Said RespectAbility Gabrielle Einstein-Sim, one of RespectAbility’s NY based board members who is active in the Jewish community, “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.”

Encouragingly, 57 percent of New York Jews with a disability connection feel that the community is doing “somewhat well” or better on inclusion of people with disabilities. This is higher than national numbers of 43 percent of both Jews with and without disabilities feel that the community is doing “somewhat well” on inclusion of people with disabilities (PWDS). Nationally, 38 percent of Jewish PWD respondents feel that the community is doing “a little better” on inclusion over the past five years. In New York these progress numbers are more encouraging with 62 percent of Jews with a disability connection describing inclusion as a “little better” (51%) or “much better” (11%). Of note, 24 percent of New York Jewish respondents with no disability connection “do not know” if there has been any improvement over the past five years, pointing still to a lack of awareness and an opportunity to increase inclusion.

When asked, “Aside from an individual’s family and friends, which part of the community is most responsible for increasing inclusion of people with disabilities,” the leading responses in New York are synagogues (35%) followed by Jewish Federations (20%).

Jews in the New York disability community also point to the synagogues (22%) and social organizations (26%) are seen as the most challenging areas for inclusion.

Nationally, over a third of Jewish respondents with a disability identify the biggest barrier as “prejudice and unacknowledged stigma against people with disabilities.” Jews with no disability connection note prejudice first as well at 28 percent but other answers again point to opportunities to increase inclusion in that another 37 percent combined point to the largest barriers being a lack of information rather than will:

“Religious leaders and activists want to be inclusive, but they don’t know how.” (19%)
“Including people with disabilities can be complicated and we don’t have the expertise to serve every need.” (18%)

For New York Jews with no disability connection, the highest ranked barrier was, “inclusion is expensive and the community has limited resources.” at 26 percent. It was the third ranked choice of New York Jews in the disability community at 21 percent.

The top type of disability noted by members of our community is mental health. Indeed, 21 percent of the Jewish respondents personally have a mental health issue or someone in their household does. In New York, this number rose to 28 percent. Said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, “There is an epidemic of suicides in the Jewish community and we have to address this.”

New York Jews in the disability community noted in open-ended responses a series of events when they were not included, such as:

My son was kicked out of our temple’s nursery school because he wasn’t talking. He was not a behavior problem, by the way; he had been diagnosed with a speech and language disorder. When he was 14, he was also turned away by another temple — ironically it was a new program they were launching for teens with special needs. He was rejected because he has seizures — as was my friend’s son, who also has epilepsy. Guess our sons were too special for their special needs program. And yes, I’m still angry at how we were treated.

When I was in a wheelchair every single shul in my neighborhood (and there are many) had steps so I was unable to go to any shul on Rosh Hashanah.

I won’t name the synagogue. But a few years back me and my children were asked to leave a children’s high holiday service because my autistic son was having a hard time sitting still. We stayed in the back of the room so we wouldn’t bother anyone. But apparently that wasn’t good enough and in front of all the other families, the gentleman asked me and my three children to leave.

My relative was turned down for a job she was qualified for because she had a mobility issue and they were afraid she would sue them if she fell.

Said Vivian Bass, a member of RespectAbility’s executive committee, Inclusion Co-Chair and disability expert, “We are a stronger community when we live up to our values— when we are welcoming, diverse, moral, and respect one another. We want our children, parents, grandparents, and other family and friends with disabilities to be able to have an equal opportunity to fully participate in our community.”

This survey was made possible by the financial support of The Genesis Prize Foundation, which worked with Jewish Funders Network to conduct the Breaking Barriers Initiative, created to honor Itzhak Perlman, 2016 Genesis Prize Laureate and world-renowned violinist and activist for people with disabilities. Ahuva and Aaron Orlofsky of the ORLO Fund and the Beverly Foundation matched that support. The overwhelming response to the survey would not have been possible without the partnership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, UJA- Federation of New York, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the LA Jewish Journal, and JTA.

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