April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, an opportunity for all Americans to commit to supporting people with autism spectrum disorders, ensure they are afforded opportunities to reach their full potential, and appreciate the contributions individuals on the autism spectrum make to our families, communities and society.
For the Jewish community, our commitment to these goals must surpass just one month of ceremonial observance. We must dedicate ourselves to a continuous effort to shift our thinking to ensure we recognize, appreciate, and invite individuals with disabilities and their families into the mosaic that makes up today’s Jewish world. We must make our communities intrinsically inclusive of everyone by ensuring accessibility to our institutions, accepting the role each individual plays in our community, adapting programming to accommodate all abilities, welcoming everyone with respect and dignity, and celebrating our diversity while creating a sense of unity.
Recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate one in 50 American children are on the autism spectrum, and as many as one in six may have one or more developmental disabilities or other developmental delays. This is a daunting phenomenon, but for the Jewish community, it is also an opportunity, both in the context of Jewish values and the continuity of our faith, to welcome those who have been marginalized back into our community.
When the Jewish Federations of North America convened Opening Abraham’s Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative last November in Baltimore, more than 120 professional and lay leaders from 25 cities discussed how their Jewish communities could become more inclusive. Leaders with experience in promoting a culture of inclusion provided tangible steps and tools, many of them at low- to no-cost, to help accomplish this important goal. The attendees acknowledged that by making this commitment and taking meaningful actions, we can ensure that not only individuals with disabilities, but their family members and friends who love and support them, will feel welcome to live full and meaningful Jewish lives.
The important conversations that took place last November have led to the formation of inclusion committees in cities across North America that are working on ensuring all aspects of Jewish life are truly inclusive. Religious streams are working together to ensure their synagogues are welcoming and accommodating of everyone. Jewish Federations and Jewish family service agencies are ensuring their programming and services help to bring individuals with disabilities and their families closer to the community. Schools and camps are focusing on ways to implement truly inclusive curriculum and experiences for all children.
But, we have a long way to go. Each and every one of us has a Jewish neshama (soul) that it is incumbent upon the Jewish community to help blossom. No person with disabilities – and no family-member of a person with disabilities – should feel unwelcome to participate in any aspect of Jewish life.
Jewish Federations remain committed to leading this shift in culture, not only during Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, but every day and in every Jewish community. Indeed, let us all take this opportunity to dedicate ourselves to building not just ramps for accessibility to Jewish agencies, but also ramps for inclusion in Jewish life.
William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America, is a leading advocate for the American Jewish community’s agenda in the nation’s capitol. As the chief lobbyist and principal spokesperson on public policy and international affairs for the 154 Jewish federations and more than 300 independent communities, Daroff ensures that the voice of Jewish federations is a prominent force on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch. He can be found on Twitter at @Daroff
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