MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (JTA) — Like most donors to the annual campaign, I never imagined that my family would be beneficiaries of federation agencies. When my second child, Daniel, was diagnosed with autism, I learned abruptly that today’s donors can become tomorrow’s beneficiaries.
For my wife and me, Daniel has been one of our two great gifts from God, a source of joy and inspiration. The challenges posed, however, by having a child with autism and the communal reaction to this condition create serious challenges, including feelings of alienation and isolation.
Our family then joined the Friendship Circle, a partner agency of our local federation, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. The Friendship Circle is an exceptional program that each year pairs more than 800 teenage volunteers in our UJC community with hundreds of disabled peers. At the Friendship Circle, "klal Yisrael" and "areyvut" — Jewish mutual responsibility — are not mere slogans but living, breathing Jewish core values often overlooked in our contemporary society.
In 2009, my wife and I opened a bookstore, [words], in Maplewood, N.J., the twin mission of which is to promote the vibrancy of our town community and serve as a place where local individuals with developmental disabilities and their families are welcomed with open arms and hearts. In coordination with MetroWest agencies, [words] has instituted a vocational training program for young adults with autism.
MetroWest contains some of the most impressive programs for the disabled in the United States. For example, JESPY House is one of only a few programs in the country for adults with learning and developmental disabilities who demonstrate the ability to live independently and gain competitive employment. It provides job training and a full social and recreational calendar.
The WAE Center (Wellness, Art & Enrichment) offers people with disabilities an opportunity to join the artistic community by expressing themselves through programs in writing, poetry, painting, film, music and more. Career Camp is a vocational summer camp experience for students who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Although our community has provided many great programs, communication and coordination between the agencies was sometimes sub-optimal, and potential beneficiaries often were confused by the process and unaware of programs offered at various agencies. Moreover, the dream of integration into mainstream Jewish life, particularly at our synagogues, seemed elusive.
Participation in the Friendship Circle and our work at [words] introduced me to an extraordinary and innovative effort in its embryonic phase at MetroWest, one that ultimately resulted in the creation of MetroWest ABLE. ABLE is a dynamic group of lay and professional leaders (of which I am proud to be a part) from several federation agencies dedicated to enhancing services to those with disabilities.
In the past few years, ABLE has become a national leader in the development of comprehensive and holistic programmatic services for people with disabilities and their families.
ABLE’s success is grounded in the extraordinary eagerness of its constituent federation agencies to work together and avoid turf battles to provide the best possible services. It creates a central address, with a services coordinator, that enables families with special needs to learn about all of the services available to them.
ABLE’s work is shared through the Disability Workgroup of the Jewish Federations of North America, which disseminates best practices developed by Jewish communities throughout North America.
One of ABLE’s most significant accomplishments has been to galvanize the integration of individuals with special needs into the everyday life of our synagogues. Many synagogues wish to include disabled congregants but lack the resources or expertise to do so effectively. ABLE created a set of criteria to help synagogues to become “ABLE-ready” and has encouraged the formation of special needs inclusion committees.
Shabbat Shalem weekends have been promoted at synagogues throughout the community, and matching grants were awarded to synagogues for projects that helped disabled congregants to participate more fully in mainstream activities.
We are fortunate to belong to a synagogue that has played a leadership role in embracing the ABLE initiatives. Last year, Daniel celebrated his bar mitzvah in an inspiring synagogue service. We hope that over time, the dream of integrating Jews with disabilities into mainstream Jewish life, particularly at our synagogues, will become a reality.
Despite these encouraging accomplishments, many challenges lie ahead for Daniel and all individuals with disabilities. And just as we donors have become beneficiaries, we must strive to enable today’s beneficiaries to become tomorrow’s donors.
(Jonah Zimiles is the parent of a child with autism, the owner of [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., and a member of MetroWest ABLE.)
(February is national Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. Information and suggestions on activities and programs can be found in the Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month Resource Guide published by the Disability Workgroup of the Jewish Federations of North America.)