by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Special to WJW Until now, tens of thousands of Jews with disabilities have experienced barriers that prevented them from experiencing a full Jewish life at Jewish camps, schools, synagogues and more. But that could all change as the right people are finally "on the bus" to help ensure that people with disabilities and their families are fully included in Jewish life in communities across North America. This week, The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) partnered with the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) on "Opening Abraham's Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative." The caliber of the people in the room was at the highest level, including top staff of the Jewish Federations of North America and many of the largest Federations. This is vital, as the Federations, which collectively raise billions each year to support Jewish causes, can do more for inclusion than any other network in the Jewish community.

Jerry Silverman, JFNA's president and CEO, is committed to full "big tent" Jewish institutions. He came to JFNA with a stellar background in the private sector, and is keenly aware of shortages of accommodations available at many Jewish institutions for people with disabilities and their families.

William Daroff, JFNA's vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office, spoke at the conference and helped to ensure participants left with clear goals in mind. He, too, knows the issues well and has been a leader in the field.

David Feinman, who leads JFNA's disability advocacy efforts with great skill, put together a superb program and speakers. He honors his brother, Paul, who has Asperger's, in every aspect of his work.

Steve Rakitt, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, spoke at the event, listened carefully to all the presentations with a full team from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and its affiliated agencies, and was vital to recruiting outstanding people from around the country to join in the work.

The professional leaders, together with superb lay leaders including Shelley Richman Cohen, whose nascent Jewish Inclusion Project is working to expand inclusion training courses for rabbinical students of all denominations, and Dan Guyer from Detroit, who co-leads with Marcia Cohodes JFNA's Human Services & Public Policy Disability Committee. They made a clear difference.

This conference came on the heels of important work by JFNA's Disability Committee which agreed to "Four Key Elements of Inclusion," to guide efforts by Federations and its affiliated agencies to achieve meaningful progress towards becoming more inclusive:

 

  • 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, reflecting and celebrating diversity while creating a sense of unity within the Jewish community.

 

Agreeing to these elements was an important milestone, but deeds mean more than words, and the commitment to these principles must come from the entirety of our communities. Thus, it was meaningful that the gathering included luminaries in the field from the Union for Reform Judaism, Chabad, Orthodox Union and everyone in between, as well as representatives from the breadth of Jewish social service and education organizations and from more than two dozen communities. The event also welcomed the arrival of an important free online resource book created by the Jewish Funders Network (see www.Jfunders.org/disabilityguide).

Del. Gov. Jack Markell was the keynote speaker at the Disability Inclusion Initiative. Markell, who is Jewish, served on his local Federation board and as a member of the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet. A strong bridge builder, Markell was also elected earlier this year to serve as the chairman of the National Governor's Association (NGA).

Each NGA chair picks an issue of focus for their year in that role, and Markell has chosen employment issues in the disability community as his focus. 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. In the talk 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.

All Jewish organizations and institutions need to "walk the walk" not only in how they employ, but in how they serve as elements of the whole Jewish community, to ensure everyone, regardless of their abilities or differences, is included. This won't happen overnight, but we are definitely moving in the right direction. It will be important for philanthropists and Federations to use a "carrot" by funding only organizations that play their part on inclusion in the future.

Rakitt and Marci Harris-Blumenthal, director of local planning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, are inviting all D.C.-area participants from the conference to a "debriefing" meeting in the next several weeks. "We need to hear what everyone took away from the Baltimore discussions," said Rakitt. "But more importantly, we have to begin an important conversation in our community about how to move the inclusion agenda beyond just words. While we have a number of outstanding programs in our community, I believe we can do even better in creating a community-wide, more holistic approach to better engage those with special needs and their families," he added. "Synagogues, schools, agencies and the Federation should, and must, work together to ensure that we successfully welcome and engage the special needs community, as well as those in the interfaith, LGBT and newcomer communities."

"Only then," he concluded, "will we be worthy of calling D.C. a reflection of 'Abraham's Tent.' "

There are good people who have worked in this field for decades, including Sara Rubinow Simon, Lenore Lerner and others in Washington and across the continent who have given us a platform from which we can achieve meaningful progress. With these new leaders now on the team, with hard work and focus, we can reach our goals both locally and nationally.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of Laszlo Strategies and co-director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust which proudly helped support the initiative.

Published by Washington Jewish Week.

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