BY JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI
A conference on inclusion of people with disabilities may mark the beginning of a new era in Jewish communal attitudes.
For years, it has fallen to the parents of children with intellectual, physical, learning, social and other disabilities and differences to battle the institutions of the organized Jewish community for “a place at the table” for their children in Jewish day schools, synagogues and summer camps. Almost every parent of a child with a significant disability can tell of the heartbreak of rejection of their children by the community, or, at the very least, the heroic battles that they had to wage to enable their child to lay claim to some component of their Jewish identity. Adults with disabilities can tell stories about the lack of appreciation of the community’s role in allowing them access, physical and social, to the community as it is often mistakenly deemed “too expensive” or put in the back of the line of our community’s priorities.
But given that fully 20 percent of Americans overall have a disability and that Jews have additional disabilities because of genetic differences and choices to have children later in life, which can lead to autism and Down syndrome, there is an epidemic of Jewish children with disabilities who must be included in our Jewish institutions. Ensuring that Jews with disabilities have a seat at our table is vital not only for recognizing the image of God within each person, but also to Jewish survival.
Thankfully, the drive for acceptance of people with disabilities from the grass roots is beginning to be complemented by a growing awakening in the Jewish community’s leadership ranks. On Nov. 14, The Jewish Federation of North America hosted Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative as an adjunct conference at the conclusion of this year’s General Assembly meeting in Baltimore. The practical program, developed to share “best inclusion practices,” was attended by more than 130 community and lay leaders from across the country and across the religious spectrum. The program was sponsored jointly by The Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), Jewish Funders Network (JFN), Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the Mizrahi Family Foundation. The event also welcomed the arrival of an important free online resource book created by the JFN (see Jfunders.org/disabilityguide).
The keynote speaker was Gov. Jack Markell (D-Del.), chair of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and who is also active in Jewish life. Each NGA chair picks an issue of the year, and Markell has chosen the issue of helping people with disabilities get jobs, inspiring his fellow governors to bring people with disabilities into the work force by focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities. At the conference, Markell challenged Federations and other Jewish groups to “walk the walk” and be even more inclusive, not only in whom they serve and which organizations they fund, but also in their professional hiring.
JFNA leadership, including CEO Jerry Silverman, whose hallmark is commitment to full “big tent” Jewish institutions, agreed that ending the shortages of accommodations available at many Jewish institutions for people with disabilities needs to change and that funding decisions need to reflect that commitment. He even agreed that JFNA needs to prioritize the hiring of people with disabilities so that their voices are heard loudly, directly and personally.
Los Angeles is a step ahead of the country in part because of the HaMercaz Jewish special needs collaborative, funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. It is a model of how Jewish organizations can work together to help families impacted by developmental disabilities and other special needs. L.A.’s recent Special Needs Study Mission to Israel was the first group of parents, professionals and young adult stakeholders to visit Israel for the express purpose of visiting innovative young adult vocational and residential programs. Other collaborative efforts, such as the Bet Tzedek Transitions Project, are looking at the new phenomenon of aging adults with developmental disabilities. Los Angeles also has some schools, synagogues and camps that have created either inclusive or self-contained special-needs programs for children, teens and young adults.
Although the need for more programming exists even on America’s “progressive coast,” Elaine Hall from Vista Del Mar and The Miracle Project represented the Los Angeles special-needs community at Opening Abraham’s Tent. She shared the good works of Nes Gadol, Vista’s religious education and Jewish Life programs for families with special needs, and announced receiving a recent grant from L.A.’s Jewish Community Foundation to enhance community inclusion in local synagogues and JCC’s, but she also commented on how L.A. lags in housing and jobs. She said she is hopeful that the new merging of Etta Israel and Ohel will remedy the lack of housing opportunities and that the Shalom Institute’s commitment to creating jobs for young adults with special needs will stimulate Los Angeles in these areas. Hall noted the importance of gatherings such as Opening Abraham’s Tent to provide necessary connections to and collaborations with others so that we each don’t need to “reinvent the wheel.”
Perhaps the moment is arriving when the grass-roots efforts of numerous parents of children and adults with disabilities (all of whom can be exhausted from the personal and financial stress from disabilities) are being reciprocated by efforts of the Jewish community’s leadership. With the impetus coming from above and below, the next few years may witness a major change in the Jewish community’s embrace and celebration of the contribution that people with disabilities can make to the future of the Jewish people.