Jewish communal awareness of disabilities is growing, but advocates say not enough

Children with disabilities and their peers kayak at Camp Ramah Wisconsin. (Courtesy National Ramah Commission)

Children with disabilities and their peers kayaking at Camp Ramah Wisconsin. (Courtesy National Ramah Commission)

NEW YORK (JTA) — In the coming months, six young Jews with disabilities will start paid internships at major Jewish federations through a pilot program. If successful, the program will expand to communities throughout North America.

In the fall, Manhattan’s first Jewish day school for children with special needs will open.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Jewish Camp is seeking to raise $31 million for a multi-pronged effort to more than double the number of children with disabilities attending Jewish overnight camps.

As the sixth annual Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month draws to a close — events nationwide included an advocacy day in Washington — the issue of disabilities is enjoying greater prominence than ever in the Jewish communal world.

“I feel like we’re really riding a wave of care and interest on this issue,” said Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of Manhattan’s Shefa School, which will serve children with speech and language delays when it opens in September.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, a sponsor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and co-chair of the Jewish Disabilities Advocacy Network, said, “Within the Jewish community, recognizing that every part of our community should be included in our communal activities has become more apparent and is being fulfilled more and more. To not include individuals with disabilities and their family members in an open Jewish community is really seen as being treif [not kosher].”

Nonetheless, advocates say the Jewish community still has a long way to go when it comes to opening doors for Jews with disabilities, a diverse group estimated to make up 15-20 percent of the total Jewish population. It’s a group that encompasses everyone from those with language and developmental delays to the autistic, to people with physical and psychiatric disabilities.

In part, advocates say, the process of change has been slowed because American Jewish communal institutions — like all religious organizations — are exempt from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. In particular, many synagogue schools and Jewish day schools turn away children with disabilities whom they feel unable to serve. Physical accessibility also is limited in many Jewish institutional buildings.

“At the moment, we [the Jewish community] hold ourselves to a lower standard than the broader public is held to,” said Ari Ne’eman, founder and president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, a nonprofit run by and for autistic people.

“There is unfortunately a perception that in some ways this is justified or that because the law does not require religious institutions to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, that all that’s necessary is a certain standard of good will,” Ne’eman said. “But the purpose of the ADA is that this is not a matter of charity but a matter of rights.

“It’s not a matter of doing this if it’s convenient or accepting people with disabilities if it represents a funder priority or any number of other things. It should be the bare minimum necessary to conduct a program. Doing something in an accessible way should be part of the cost of doing anything at all.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO and president of RespectAbility USA, a group that focuses on disability issues in the faith-based sector, says the inclusion of people with disabilities is not just a moral or civil rights issue but “important for Jewish survival.”

Laszlo Mizrahi, who was the founder and longtime director of The Israel Project, a group shaping public perceptions of Israel, says that certain genetic risks and the tendency of American Jews to have children later in life means Jews likely have more disabilities per capita than the American population at large.

By not doing more to include and welcome this segment of the Jewish population, the Jewish community risks driving away not only individuals with disabilities but also their families and friends, says Laszlo Mizrahi, herself the mother of two children with disabilities.

A RespectAbility USA poll of 3,800 Americans in the disability community last fall found that Jews with disabilities are “far less engaged in their faith” than their counterparts who are Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical.

Fewer than half of the Jews surveyed answered that religion was “fairly” or “very important in their lives,” and nearly 40 percent “hardly ever or never” attend synagogue.

Jews with disabilities are not the only Jews to be less religiously engaged than Christians. The 2008 Pew Forum American Religious Landscape Survey found that only 31 percent of Jews say religion is very important to their lives, and only 16 percent attend religious services at least once a week.

However, Laszlo Mizrahi says Jews with disabilities are “far more alienated” from Jewish life than Jews in general because many have been turned away from, or not had their needs met by, Jewish institutions.

“If you have a disability and, say, want to attend a day school or camp, you’re frequently told no,” she said, adding that many Jewish day schools “counsel you to leave if they don’t think you’re successful enough.”

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, echoes Laszlo Mizrahi’s assessment that greater inclusion is good for Jewish continuity — and that far more work needs to be done.

“Jewish organizations run after people who are well educated, upwardly mobile and not engaged, but at the same time they are really bad at connecting all these parts of the Jewish community that want in,” Ruderman said. “There are all sorts of parts of the Jewish community that want in that are kept out, whether because of ignorance or people saying it is too costly, which is not the case.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about a discriminatory attitude that the future of our community looks a certain way,” he said, adding that if American Jewish institutions do not become more inclusive, “We’re going to become a community that’s unattractive to the very young people we’re trying to attract because they are used to living in a pluralistic, inclusive society and will think the Jewish community looks like a country club.”

Ruderman’s foundation has arguably become the leading advocate for Jews with disabilities, in the United States and Israel.

Since 2002, the foundation, which spent $2.7 million in 2011, the last year for which tax forms are available, has focused most of its efforts on promoting inclusion in the Jewish community. Initially it concentrated on Boston, where it partnered with the local federation to help area day schools better serve children with disabilities and helped launch a job-training program for Jews with disabilities. In recent years it has sought to have a more national impact by partnering with or convening other funders and national Jewish groups.

For example, in December the foundation launched a partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism to improve attitudes about inclusion and disabilities among Reform community leaders and clergy, Jewish professionals, organizational leaders and congregants, and to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in Reform Jewish life. The foundation is now in discussions with Chabad about developing a joint effort, Ruderman said.

The foundation also is working with the Jewish Federations of North America to create federation-based internships for individuals with disabilities.

JFNA’s Daroff says the project is “about individuals getting training and experience, but it’s also to help expand the horizons of the federations themselves and give federation employees experience working with people with disabilities.”

Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director of Matan, an organization that advocates for Jewish students with special needs, says the federation internships are significant because “federations are the umbrella for many other organizations in a community, so if this is something they are deeming important, then it’s going to impact many other agencies as well.”

While she is pleased by the rising profile of disability issues, Kirshner says it leads to another challenge: the need to train more professionals “who are capable of helping Jewish communities support all kinds of learners.”

“The demand is going to outweigh the supply of well-trained educators unless there’s real push to plan for it,” she said.

 

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