BOSTON (JTA) — Since the late 1980s the Jewish conversation — and Jewish funding — has orbited around the goal of Jewish continuity. Whether the cause is Jewish peoplehood, intermarriage, education or even Israel, ensuring our Jewish continuity inevitably grounds the discussion.
But one issue critical to continuity has been missing from the conversation for far too long: supporting our disabled and special needs populations.
With 14 percent of children in North America having special needs and an even larger percentage of people (young and old) living with a disability, hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and around the world must forego Jewish experiences in order to participate in secular programs — schools, camps, vocational services and more — that meet basic developmental needs.
Even in major Jewish markets, families with disabled children struggle to engage in Jewish life. This summer, international media reported on the Samuels family of New York, who were forced to choose between providing a Jewish education for their daughter Caily, who was born with Down syndrome, and a secular program that would accommodate her special circumstances.
For a people who value fairness, inclusivity and justice, it’s unacceptable that so many of our own are turned away in this manner. We need to tackle Jewish continuity head-on by ensuring that Jews with special needs have a place to live, learn and work within our communities.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am issuing a challenge to the Jewish community to embrace special needs as a core part of the continuity conversation, and to take active roles in supporting the needs of the disabled. We cannot afford to ignore the issue of special needs because it is expensive or complex. It is critical to the future of our community and deserves to be prioritized.
If Jews with disabilities are turned away from Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues, that means the organized Jewish community is turning away an integral part of our community — our children, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors and colleagues.
But by moving the bar in this one area, and supporting programs that enable Jews with disabilities to participate in all facets of Jewish life, we can create opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people living with special needs to lead meaningful and vibrant Jewish lives. I can’t think of a more meaningful way to support continuity.
We’ve seen individual examples of programs that are making a real difference across the United States and internationally:
* San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education has helped preschools, synagogues, JCCs and day schools come together with central agencies to ensure that Jewish learning is available to every student.
* With support from the UJA Federation of New York, the “Reelabilities” film festival has been able to raise awareness and promote appreciation for those with a range of disabilities.
* In Michigan, the Friendship Circle provides assistance and support to the families of children with special needs.
* Gateways: Access to Jewish Education enables more than 500 special-needs children in Boston to attend local Jewish day schools, where teachers and administrators are now trained to work with the children.
* Yachad provides Jewish programming and experiences in educational, recreational and social settings throughout the United States and Canada.
* And in Israel, Israel Unlimited, a partnership of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Israeli government and the Ruderman Family Foundation is engaged in integrating people with disabilities in the community.
These are all examples of pacesetting organizations making great strides on this issue. However, there are no mechanisms — particularly in the funding community — for sharing information and pursuing collaborative endeavors that perpetuate these regional programs. When and where it exists, support for disabled populations happens in silos, across regions, age groups, and a great variance of physical and cognitive disorders.
In order to effectively support the needs of our disabled populations, we must break down these barriers, so that shared learning and collaboration can benefit all.
This month, an international group of Jewish funders and nonprofit leaders convened in New York City to examine the opportunity gap that exists for disabled Jews, and to inspire collaboration in which private funders, federations and professionals can actively work together to build a more inclusive community.
The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference was an important step on the path toward building a more inclusive future, but it will require a greater communal response to make that goal a reality. We must commit to making “special needs” a priority topic within the larger continuity conversation, and take action to bring all people with disabilities back into the folds of Jewish life.
(Jay Ruderman is the president of The Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of people with special needs in the Greater Boston area and Israel.)