By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi & Sharon Ruderman Shapiro

Recently, we had the honor of participating in an informative and inspiring conference in Baltimore titled, “Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative.” This event was proof that, finally, the right people are “on the bus” to help ensure that people with disabilities and their families are fully included in Jewish life in communities across North America. It also validated the model for inclusion that has been developed here in Boston.

The conference resulted from a partnership of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH).

The caliber of the people in the room, including top staff from JFNA and many of the largest federations, demonstrated the importance of this issue. These organizations, which collectively raise billions each year to support Jewish causes, can do more for inclusion than any other network in the Jewish community.

An important first step is work done by JFNA’s Disability Committee, which developed the “Four Key Elements of Inclusion,” a framework to guide federations and affiliated agencies to achieve meaningful progress toward inclusion.

• Accessibility: Ensuring that people with disabilities can access Jewish institutions in our communities and all of the activities held within them.

• Acceptance: Understanding that each one of us has a role to play so that all people are welcome and can participate in meaningful ways.

• Accommodation: Adapting and modifying the environment or programming to allow people with disabilities to actively participate.

• Welcoming: Treating people with disabilities and their families with respect and dignity, while creating a sense of unity within the Jewish community.

Agreeing to these elements was an important milestone, but actions mean more than words, and the commitment to these principles must come from the entirety of our communities. Therefore, it was meaningful that the gathering included luminaries in the field from all different walks of Jewish life, as well as representatives from the breadth of religious, Jewish social service, and educational organizations.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who keynoted the program, is Jewish, and served on his local Federation board and as a member of the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet.

As chairman of the National Governors Association, Gov. Markell has focused his efforts on employment issues for individuals with disabilities. His initiative A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities, is working to bring people with disabilities into the workforce by focusing on their abilities, not their disabilities. He is meeting with governors and businesses across the country to advance opportunities for these individuals to be gainfully employed in the competitive labor market. During his speech, Markell inspired federations and other Jewish organizations to “walk the walk” and be even more inclusive not only in whom they serve, but also in whom they hire.

In Boston, the Ruderman Family Foundation, in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), has funded groundbreaking initiatives that provide inclusive opportunities for members of our community. Among them are Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which helps children with disabilities in Greater Boston to access Jewish learning services. Another program, Transitions, which partners with the Jewish Vocational Service, funds an innovative employment program for young adults with disabilities to obtain job training at a site (Hebrew SeniorLife’s NewBridge on the Charles) that can potentially employ them after training. This pioneering program aims to increase the low employment rates among persons with disabilities. In addition to these programs, Boston is blessed with agencies, synagogues and initiatives that provide housing, employment, education, friendship, camping, case management and advocacy services to people with disabilities and their families.

It is clear that every Jewish person must be included in order for the Jewish people as a whole to be truly united as one. The work done by CJP and other Jewish philanthropic organizations in Boston is ushering in a new era of accessibility, acceptance, and accommodation to welcome everyone into our Jewish community.

We believe that while much is left to be done, Boston is a model for the full inclusion of people with disabilities. This is a cue for the rest of the Jewish world not to trail behind.

Sharon Ruderman Shapiro is vice president of the Ruderman Family Foundation of Newton. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of Laszlo Strategies, and co-director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust, which was a co-sponsor and funder of the conference.

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