Op-Ed: Play the money card to push rights for disabled

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish identity and connection are the birthright of every Jew. So why do so many Jewish institutions discriminate against Jews with disabilities?

It keeps happening because we let it happen. We make excuses by saying there isn’t enough support or enough dollars, or because we value children going to Harvard over those who won’t.

With February being Jewish Disability Awareness Month, it’s time to ask how long we plan to provide the pearls of our heritage only to those capable of receiving them in the rote methods they are presented?

Judaism teaches us that when we were slaves in Egypt and really needed help, God’s instrument was a person with a disability: Moses was “slow of speech and tongue." But with tremendous assistance from Aaron and the proper supports, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom and the Promised Land.

For how long will the keys to our treasure trove of tradition only be given to those at our Jewish day schools, synagogue religious schools, youth groups and others who can use those keys without adaptation or support?

More is being done in some institutions to broaden the tent, and there are pockets of excellence. However, I know more than a hundred parents from across America, including top Jewish leaders, whose children have been rejected or “counseled out” from Jewish day schools because of their disabilities.

I watched in pain recently as a prestigious Jewish day school encouraged three children in a classroom of 16 students to leave Jewish day schools because the schools did not want to accommodate their special needs. The three went on to non-Jewish schools for children who are college bound but have special needs. Their parents’ tuition bills increased from $25,000 a year to $35,000 to $65,000 a year — funds they gladly would have paid to keep their children within the walls of a Jewish school.

Instead these families, who needed support from the Jewish community as they were dealing with their children’s special needs, left feeling anger as their community turned them away.

Too often, no matter how hard they try, many Jews with disabilities are simply not fully welcomed. This isn’t an isolated problem: Estimates based on Jewish studies put the number of Jewish children in America with some sort of disability at 200,000. According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of Americans have a disability, and a recent national poll showed that 51 percent of likely American voters either have a disability or a loved one with a disability.

The Jewish community harms itself when it turns away people with disabilities.

Moreover, some buildings for Jewish day schools, synagogues and special events education have doors that are too narrow for wheelchairs. Why host programs in places that are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act? High Holidays services are led without sign language interpreters in congregations with deaf members. We hand out songs sheets in font sizes too small for the visually impaired to read.

The mantra of the disability community, which wants and deserves a say in its destiny, has become “Nothing about us without us.” Yet even many Jewish organizations that serve Jews with disabilities don’t put people with disabilities on their committees, staffs or boards.

We would not tolerate it if a prestigious school rejected children because they were Jewish. Why does the Jewish community continue to tolerate it when Jewish institutions say no to people with disabilities?

It’s time to use the power of the purse to stop the discrimination.

The “golden rule” of non-profits is that those who give the gold makes the rules. So donors, large and small, must say “hineini” (here I am) to end the intolerance and injustice. Rather than talking the talk, we must walk the walk.

Jews with disabilities aren’t the only Jews who face discrimination from within; so does the LBGT community. Thankfully the Schusterman and Morningstar foundations, along with Stuart Kurlander, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a gay rights activist, have created an index to show if Jewish groups are open to the LBGT community. They are having a positive impact. This is an example to follow.

Indeed, the Ruderman Family Foundation was the first to raise this issue when it came to inclusion of Jews with disabilities. Others should follow its example. At the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust, we are. While our family foundation doesn’t accept any unsolicited applicants, even those who we encourage to apply for support must answer serious questions.

They include:

* Does your organization have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels, including on your board of directors?

* Does your organization have a disability advisory committee/inclusion committee?

* Will the program or project include people with disabilities?  If not, why not?  If so, how do you plan to identify, reach and welcome them?

* Describe the accessibility of your offices to people with physical disabilities.

* Do you employ and/or offer internships to individuals who have disabilities?  If so, what are their jobs?  Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions?  Please describe how you educate your board of directors or trustees and staff about serving and partnering with people with disabilities.

Our foundation is smaller than others, but we believe that no matter the size of our philanthropic investments, they must be moral in nature. For example, this year we cut funding to an organization with the sole purpose of serving people with disabilities, but tragically the very people they were supposedly serving didn’t feel they were being heard and respected as equals.

We hope that others, including federations, foundations and individuals, will join us as we fight for justice and opportunity, so that all Jews can experience our Jewish birthright.

(Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the co-founder and director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust and founder and president of Laszlo Strategies.)

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