Op-Ed: At Hillel, fostering a culture of disabilities inclusion


ORLANDO, Fla. (JTA) — Standing before the burning bush, Moses asks of God, “Mi anochi?” Who am I to be the one who goes to Pharaoh? Though there are many reasons why Moses may have asked the question, a tip-off to what is really on Moses’ mind comes just a few verses later when Moses reminds God that he is “slow of speech and tongue.”

In most commentaries, this is interpreted to mean that Moses has a severe speech impediment. God’s response to Moses’ disability is powerful. God wants him for his leadership qualities notwithstanding his disability, and Moses draws strength from having his brother, Aaron, stand beside him and support him.

Noah Weiss is a 2015 graduate from a doctoral program at my alma mater, Northwestern University. Noah writes in the new issue of Hillel College Guide magazine that his Asperger’s syndrome had often stood in the way of building strong connections with his peers, but the community he found at Hillel helped change that.

“Hillel events helped me to break out of my Aspie shell,” he writes. “I could feel a sense of community that didn’t discriminate against others because of their background or human conditions.”

READ: What Jews with disabilities can teach the rest of us

That’s why Hillel International is launching a multi-year campaign, through a generous partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, to build cultures of inclusion on college campuses. We can all be Aarons who make it possible for students with disabilities, including mental illness, to find their voice. We can work together with all students to break down barriers to participation in the Jewish community and on the broader campus. And we can be among the ones that students turn to as a resource when they are grappling with mental illness, depression, anxiety and trauma. We can create welcoming spaces, and we can make it clear that they, too, are Jewish leaders.

Eric Fingerhut (Courtesy of Hillel International)

Eric D. Fingerhut (Courtesy of Hillel International)

With Hillel staff from around the world gathering this week in Orlando for the second annual Hillel International Global Assembly, inclusion of students with disabilities and mental illnesses will be top among our major focuses. Research shows that the college years are the time when many mental illnesses first manifest, the result of both biological and environmental changes and stresses. Campuses across the country are reporting even higher rates of student mental illness, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

Facing up to this reality, many colleges and universities are working to expand services on campus, and for that we applaud them. Yet students still face far too many barriers to services: lack of availability, high expense and social stigma. Rabbis and Hillel staff from campus to campus tell us the same stories: Students who don’t know where else to turn often look to Hillel clergy and staff for support. Like clergy of all kinds, Hillel staff play the role of confidante and pastoral adviser. They are often the first to learn about depression, sexual assault and mental illness. They can play a profound role in making Hillel a place where every student can feel fully at home.

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This year we are undertaking a series of trainings — beginning this week in Orlando — to equip Hillel staff with the skills to recognize and lower barriers to inclusion and be a partner for students struggling with mental illness. In addition to skills training, the Hillel International Global Assembly will feature a session on inclusion of students with disabilities and mental health awareness, featuring several recent graduates sharing their stories about mental illness on campus. These stories include themes of depression, anxiety, suicide and eating disorders. This session will also include a presentation from Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation about the importance of striving for disabilities inclusion in the Jewish community.

Additionally, we are hiring a cohort of Ruderman Engagement Interns, students on campus trained to identify ways that students with disabilities are excluded from Hillel programming and work to build more inclusive communities. Even among communities committed to inclusion, students with disabilities and mental illness are too often silenced and their stories ignored by the broader community. Hillel will work with our students and staff to use our capacity for storytelling, our publications and our online presence, to ensure that we lift up the experiences and contributions of students with disabilities and mental illness.

Moses was certainly not alone among our forebears having a disability that could make it difficult for him to connect with and lead the Jewish community. Today there are still plenty of people like Moses, plenty of young Jews with disabilities waiting to take leadership. We all must be Aarons and commit ourselves to helping them do just that.

(Eric D. Fingerhut is the president and CEO of Hillel International: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.)

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