By Dr. Aviva Weisbord, Executive Director, SHEMESH

The very first Jewish leadership gathering focused on disabilities and inclusion took place this past Chanukah. Sponsored by the Ruderman Foundation, with subsidies provided by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion brought together 25 individuals from across the United States and Canada to share their work with People with Disabilities and learn from each other and from an array of presenters. Our goals were to learn about educational and vocational possibilities for People with Disabilities and acquire insight and skills for integrating these individuals into the community.

As we listened in awe to reports and personal stories from a range of people with disabilities, it became clear that our Jewish values are an imperative for us to advocate and institute inclusion in all aspects of Jewish life. Here are a few examples of what we learned, through a combination of thought-provoking lectures, challenging exercises and many, many informal conversations with our colleagues:

  1. People with disabilities can be included. With a bit of brainstorming accompanied by the commitment to make inclusion happen, our brothers and sisters with disabilities can be part and parcel of synagogues, schools, and general community events, children and adults alike. One conference participant, Baila Gansburg, told us about the school she founded in Coconut Creek, called the South Florida Jewish Academy. It’s comprised of 60 percent children with disabilities and 40 percent“typical” children who have no diagnosis, but find more success in a small classroom. When she saw people hesitating to sign up their children for the school, Baila and her husband enrolled their own “typical” children, showing by example that they believe inclusion and full integration in the community is a value and an achievable one, at that. The school now goes from Kindergarten through 12th grade and is certified by the state. Accomplishments like these can be replicated in housing, jobs, schools, synagogues and all areas of the Jewish community.
  2. We as a community can provide the supports needed by people with disabilities. Whether we work with people with disabilities or not, we can be part of a supportive community. We can help with planning more ways for people with disabilities to live their lives independently, certainly in the area of decision-making and choices. We can help our community systems develop more awareness, pointing out places where, for example, a ramp can make the difference for someone who uses a wheelchair, such as the Bimah in the synagogue.
  3. We can help People with Disabilities take a more active part in Jewish life. If we’re on a program committee at shul, for example, we can ask: Why have a special Shabbat for People with Disabilities? How about including people with disabilities in the synagogue Shabbaton instead? Think about integrating programs and activities, as opposed to maintaining their separateness.
  4. Be aware of attitude and language. We were all horrified to learn that the origin of the word “handicapped” is the way people with disabilities used to beg for funds with their cap in hand to receive coins. In her poignant book, A Life Not With Standing, author Chava Willig Levy writes about “becoming a wheelchair.” “I didn’t mind being a wheelchair user,” she says, “but being an inanimate object still bothers me.” She mentions the time she was leaving a concert at Carnegie Hall when a man in front of her said to his companion, “Let the wheelchair pass.”
  5. “I smiled and said, ‘You mean, let the woman in the wheelchair pass.’” “Well, you’re a part of it,” the man retorted. “No,” I replied. “It’s a part of me.” As we become more aware of the hurtful, depersonalizing language often used, we can help others increase their awareness, as well.

The Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion taught us all the importance of advocacy. I am going to Washington, D.C., to advocate for legislation to help people with disabilities. My new awareness has spurred me to mention at board meetings and committee meetings that we make our programs readily accessible to people with disabilities and how about including people with disabilities in the planning? We all benefit when we make sure to include every Jewish person in every facet of our unique community.

Learn more about Shemesh.

Read these books for Jewish Disability Awareness Month.