From Awareness To Acceptance


When Sharon Shapiro-Lacks founded Yad HaChazakah – The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Inc. in 2006, she recalls that “disability access and acceptance was barely a blip on the radar of Jewish consciousness.” She remembers that one major Jewish paper refused to do an article on Yad HaChazakah’s launch because they didn’t see disability as fitting their areas of interest.

“Today,” Shapiro-Lacks continues, “there is much more awareness throughout the Jewish community due to our collective efforts. Disability access and acceptance in Jewish communities is no longer a new concept.”

One of the catalysts for this culture change has been the idea of creating a month focused on raising awareness about the lives of people with disabilities in the Jewish community. The effort grew out of a dialogue among educators and inclusion advocates who were a part of a consortium of special educators working on inclusion in Jewish communities throughout the country. Author and advocate Shelly Christensen has been at the helm of what started 11 years ago as Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified national initiative during the month of February to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

A few years later, JDAM became “JDAIM,” with the word “Inclusion” being added. This year, though the acronym remains the same, a third word, “acceptance,” has been added. This month, Jewish communities around the world will recognize Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month through special services and speakers, by reading books and watching films about disability, educating kids and teens in Jewish schools and youth groups about the Jewish values related to inclusion and perhaps most importantly, listening to the perspectives of people with disabilities in our communities.

“JDAIM has always been a way to educate the worldwide Jewish community that there are people with disabilities who just want what everyone else wants — to participate in communal life,” says Christensen. “As the momentum toward inclusion continues to grow, it is clear that another key to inclusion is accepting each other, seeing the Divine image in each person we meet. This is the greatest acknowledgement that one can give, and it leads to every one of us knowing that we belong. Belonging is the heart of inclusion.”

Changes in Education

Rabbi Ruti Regan, Matan’s rabbinic disability scholar-in-residence, notes that one way we can observe the culture change that’s taken place in Jewish educational settings is that now, when a Jewish school isn’t able to provide the necessary supports for children or teens with disabilities, people will ask “Why not?” rather than simply accept exclusion as standard.

She does note, however, that Jewish schools have a way to go when it comes to instructional pedagogy that’s inclusive of all kind of learners. In a recent article on the Jewish Theological Seminary website, “Toward Inclusive Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Jewish Learners with Disabilities,” Regan explains how standard Jewish educational learning activities like arts and crafts or “Think, pair, share” discussions need to be modified to accommodate all kinds of learners.

In order to educate all students about disability inclusion from a Jewish perspective, Matan has created free lesson plans for congregational or day school K-12 classrooms. Jewish Learning Venture’s program, Whole Community Inclusion, has also created three years of Jewish values-based disability awareness lesson plans that are free and downloadable for early childhood through high school students.

While Jewish schools now want to be inclusive, professional development is needed to provide teachers, tutors, youth workers and all of the professionals who work with children and teens the training that they need.

“Meeting the needs of a broader variety of students will take professional development. It may require schools to hire more personnel. It will certainly entail developing increased supports, accommodations and services for students,” says Arlene Remz, executive director of Gateways: Access To Jewish Education in Boston. “But if we work together we can build Jewish educational environments that enable students who have a wide range of learning challenges to succeed and thrive as active participants in Jewish life.”

After School — Taking on Leadership

Jewish inclusion leaders recognize that while JDAIM has changed attitudes in Jewish organizations, movements, camps, schools and synagogues, there remains work to be done to recognize the needs of the 20 percent of the population that has some kind of disability.

“The Jewish people has made great strides in including Jews with disabilities, especially children and teens, in our synagogues and camps,” says advocate Matan Koch, who leads trainings about inclusion in the Jewish community and who served as an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability. “Now we must turn to embrace Jews with disabilities as our rabbis, cantors and lay leaders.”

Koch’s observations align with a recent poll done by RespectAbility on inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities that shows that it’s unlikely you will see a leader with a disability at a Jewish communal organization or synagogue.

“More and more Jewish summer camps, B’nai Mitzvah opportunities, Hillels and Birthright Israel trips are now open to youth with disabilities,” explains Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO and president of RespectAbility. “As a result, an increasing number of young Jews with disabilities are catching the fire and are ready to lead! Thus, the Jewish community overall can pivot from a mindset of doing things ‘FOR’ people with disabilities to doing things ‘WITH’ Jews with disabilities.”

Funding for Inclusion

To achieve the full inclusion of people with disabilities in our Jewish community, funding is essential — from training educators to upgrading buildings that lack basic access for wheelchair users. However, finding funders for this work remains a challenge.

The Ruderman Family Foundation has partnered with many organizations across the Jewish community including Hillel, Foundation for Jewish Camping, Chabad, Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Yachad, Camp Ramah, The Jewish Leadership Institute and Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. However, Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, observes the challenge of bringing other funders on board with the work of inclusion.

“For all the success we have achieved in making our Jewish community more inclusive for people with disabilities, we still have a long way to go,” Ruderman says. “Many funders and Jewish organizations promote social justice and diversity yet fail to understand that disability is part of diversity.”

Ruderman continues, “When a funder says to me that they don’t fund disability, it means that they are unwilling to include the 20 percent of our community who has a disability. Furthermore, if we are truly interested in our continuity as a Jewish community we cannot afford to alienate 20 percent of our Jewish community and their families. Our community must understand that the younger generations that many people want to attract to be part of our Jewish community already prioritize a diverse community which includes people with disabilities. If our Jewish community and its funders fail to include people with disabilities,” Ruderman concludes, “we will ultimately turn away the very young Jews we are seeking to ensure our Jewish continuity.”

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer edits The New Normal: Blogging Disability. She directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion, where she works with synagogues and schools across the Philadelphia Jewish community.