WASHINGTON (JTA) — Many years ago, when I bought an engagement ring for my wife, I learned about the four C’s in appraising and purchasing diamonds.
Last week I learned about other precious jewels in our community and participated with more than 100 others from across the United States in a groundbreaking disability inclusion conference sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Held immediately following JFNA’s General Assembly in Baltimore, the conference was titled “Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative.” It was an extraordinary gathering, bursting with inspiring moments and “tachlitic” how-tos. The room was filled with passionate, caring and dedicated volunteers and professionals seeking to share, learn and package the values to take home. It is indeed the manifestation of Jewish values to welcome and embrace our most vulnerable community members.
Just as the diamond industry has its four C’s, I believe there are also four C’s in appraising our collective approach to precious members of our community — our hidden jewels — who are disabled:
Culture: We must endeavor to create a culture of openness and welcoming throughout our communities, from newcomers to interfaith families to those with special needs. An open tent is good, but not sufficient; an extended hand is a must. Statistics indicate that one of every five Americans has some sort of disability. We cannot afford to write off this huge segment of our population and their families. To have an honest conversation about enhancing services and ensure that those with special needs are included in Jewish life, we must reinforce the importance of creating a communal culture of respect, dignity and participation. We must do more than welcome. We must sustain high-quality services and care for the long term.
Competence: This requires focus, training and a commitment to competence in service delivery. The Jewish community provides many high-quality services for its disabled, and many people are well meaning. If we are to successfully serve those with special needs, many of whom are feeling disenfranchised from the Jewish community, then nothing less than top-quality programming and services will do.
Collaboration: No agency or synagogue is an island. Together we can create a welcome community with seamless “handoffs” for our clients. People with disabilities want and need services, and at various life stages. Together we can create robust points of entry and exciting opportunities throughout the communal structure.
Cost: Several conference speakers pointed out that being welcoming does not have to cost much, if anything. There are many things we can do to welcome, embrace, serve and engage those with special needs that don’t impact agency or synagogue budgets. Other initiatives, however, have a significant price tag. As a community, we must be willing to state the case and make the argument that the cost of NOT engaging this precious population and their families is greater than the cost of any programs we initiate. We cannot be naive about the potential costs, but nearly every community has donors and foundations interested in this issue. It’s our job to bring them to the table.
In Washington, we will redouble our efforts to make our community even more welcoming to those with disabilities. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington will convene local activists who participated in the conference to “download” reflections and ideas, then invite stakeholders for a broader conversation about how we can be more responsive to community needs.
The four C’s of disability inclusion is a simple approach, even simplistic. But if we successfully create a meaningful and embracing culture, deliver competence in a coordinated manner and redouble our efforts to secure additional funding to support this holy work, I believe our tent will be more than open. It will reflect the teachings of Abraham by welcoming and embracing our community’s angels.
(Steven A. Rakitt is the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, D.C.)