The Book Of Life And Prosperity: Employment In The Disability Community
09/09/2013 - 13:20
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

On Shabbat and holidays, we refrain from praying to God about financial concerns.  We concentrate instead on the spiritual dimension of our lives.

There’s something unusual, then, about a passage that is recited only during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. It is an addition to the prayer for peace, concluding the Amidah, the central prayer in almost every service:

“May we and all your people Israel be remembered and inscribed before You in the book of life and prosperity, for a happy life and for peace.”

The passage acknowledges that there can be no true peace without prosperity and financial security. Therefore, we break the usual pattern, joining labor and livelihood concerns with spiritual aspirations for peace.

Prosperity and Peace in the Disability Community

The United States has made admirable efforts to increase employment among Americans with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act outlawed discrimination in recruiting, hiring and promoting disabled Americans, but widespread unemployment persists. Powerful people address potential employers, lauding the productivity and loyalty of qualified jobseekers with disabilities. We thought vocational training would be the key, but medical and technological advances proved to be a gateway to jobs for only a portion of our population. Despite all our efforts, unemployment among the disabled is 70 percent higher than the national rate.

A Fresh Look at a Persistent Problem

What if we dismissed all our notions about the impact of discrimination, training and technology on employment of the disabled? What if, instead, with no pre-conceptions, we examined correlations? 

Are there one or more crucial factors that differentiate people with disabilities who are employed from those who are not? Is the difference a result of childhood activities, educational opportunities, parental attitudes, or another factor as yet undiscovered?

Correlations can yield surprising insights.  For example: a 2006 Fairleigh Dickinson University study looked for factors that differentiated those who abused drugs and those who did not. The study found that ”one of the best ways for parents to protect their kids from substance abuse is to spend time with them – talk, eat dinner, know where they are and what they're doing.”  Apparently, this factor was more important than peer groups, educational campaigns and even access to drugs.

A Problem-Solving Technique

Consulting firm Kepner-Trego suggest that a problem be identified as a deviation from a standard, perhaps in our case the rate of unemployment among non-disabled Americans. They then analyze the deviation through a series of 40 key questions.

Whatever we might find, we need to remain open to answers that might surprise or even disturb us. Perhaps, if we pay attention to those answers, today’s disabled youth will have a better chance of employment after they complete their education. 

My our supplications to God at this season bring closer the day when all who wish to labor can do so with dignity, and all who seek peace will find it.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah -- the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons --boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at info@yadempowers.org

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