I was sitting at dinner, perhaps my 3rd Shabbat in college, when I got a tap on the shoulder. Standing behind me was one of the copresidents of the Reform Jewish Students at Yale. I had met her a week before, but could not really envision what brought her to my table.
It was an awkward request, she said, but her copresident was stepping down, and having heard of my experience as a NFTY leader, might I be willing to fill the spot? Moreover, she was planning to step down at the end of the semester, and then I would be the solo president, unless I could find someone else.
It did not even occur to me to decline, and thus started 4 years of programs, connections and leadership. My position enabled me to do a regular rotation of leading Reform services as an underclassman. Additionally, I joined others in leading on sensitive occasions in my senior year, like the Shabbat after 9/11. At that time we “old hats” pitched in because no one could imagine anyone else doing it on such a heavy day.
I did not say yes in a vacuum, however. I was equipped to say yes because of the leadership skills that I gained at my synagogue, in my supplemental Jewish school, in NFTY, and at the URJ camps. I could lead, and give back to the community in that way, only because I had the skills and the passion to bring it to life.
In other blogs and other places, I have written about the value of promoting inclusion in these youth programs, so that more young Jews with disabilities can grow up to offer their leadership. Today, I would like to focus on something a little different.
The Jewish community is starving for talent. Longtime leaders are aging out, and our youth are divided between so many causes and opportunities that they may or may not choose a path in the Jewish world. The fact is that today, when Jews primary engagement with the Jewish community is shifting from synagogues to so many other organizations, the Jewish world needs even more leaders.
That need is so intense that we do not have time to wait as the gradual inclusion improvements in our youth programs slowly turn out a new crop of gifted leaders. We need to reach the potential Jewish talent with disabilities that have excelled in life, but maybe not found their role in the Jewish world as a youth, or who maybe did not have a disability then, and do not realize that they can still offer their talents now that they do.
To begin to address this need, I have joined with RespectAbility, an organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities, with the goal of starting up a pilot program to train aspiring Jewish leaders with disabilities to be the types of leaders the Jewish organizations need and to train an initial group of organizations with the skills and strategies to receive their talent. In addition to whatever capacity they officially serve, be it as a volunteer, or someday a lay professional, this new crop of leaders with disabilities will also serve as mentors and exemplars, both making their organizations more ready to welcome talent of Jews with disabilities, and providing the role models that the next generation of Jewish leaders with disabilities will need.
We envision running our pilot project, Project Moses, in Los Angeles, but we hope that it is the sort of program that will be replicated nationwide. Right now, I am on a quest to find partners and supporters. You can learn more at a webinar that we will be hosting on March 19.
By this stage of my career, it is not uncommon for people to thank me for my leadership, or a moment of mentorship in the Jewish world. Personally, I am only too aware of what it took for me to get to that point. People helped me. Now I am ready to help others. Join with me, and with RespectAbility so that together we can give the Jewish world the talent that it needs.
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.