Despite good intentions by the organized Jewish community and some model programs, for years it has largely fallen to the parents of children with mental illness, intellectual, physical, learning, social and other disabilities and differences to battle for "a place at the table" for their children in Jewish day schools, synagogues and summer camps.
Almost every parent of a child with a significant disability can tell of the heartbreak of rejection of their children by the community, or at the very least, the struggles they had to wage to allow their child to lay claim to some piece of their Jewish identity.
Adults with disabilities can tell stories of the lack of appreciation of the community's role in allowing them access -- physical and social – and too often they are relegated to the back of the line in terms of communal priorities.
This is true even in New York, which offers some of the best services for Jews with disabilities. More can and must be done.
Fully 20 percent of Americans overall have a disability. Jews have additional disabilities because of genetic differences and choices to have children later in life, which can lead to autism and Down's syndrome. We have large numbers of Jewish children with disabilities who must be included in our Jewish institutions.
Ensuring that Jews with disabilities have a seat at our table is vital not only for recognizing the image of God within each person, but also to Jewish survival.
Thankfully, the grassroots drive for acceptance of people with disabilities is beginning to make an impression on the leadership ranks of the Jewish community.
This past week the Jewish Federation of North America hosted “Opening Abraham's Tent: The Disability Inclusion Initiative,” as an adjunct conference at the conclusion of this year's General Assembly meeting in Baltimore.
The “best inclusion practices” program was attended by more than 130 community and lay leaders from around the country and across the religious spectrum. The event also welcomed the arrival of a free online resources book created by the Jewish Funders Network (see www.Jfunders.org/disabilityguide).
The keynote speaker was Governor Jack Markell of Delaware, chairman of the National Governor's Association (NGA). Markell, who is Jewish, is championing the issue of helping people with disabilities get jobs, focusing on their abilities rather than their disabilities. The governor challenged Federations and other Jewish groups to "walk the walk" and be even more inclusive not only in who they serve and which organizations they fund, but also in their own professional hiring.
JFNA leadership, including CEO Jerry Silverman who emceed the discussion, agreed that ending the shortages of accommodations available at many Jewish institutions for people with disabilities needs to change and that funding decisions need to reflect that commitment. Silverman agreed that JFNA itself needs to prioritize the hiring of people with disabilities.
Among the participants at the conference were several of New York's leading advocates for people with disabilities, including Anita Altman of UJA-Federation, Pat Goldman of the Butler Foundation, and Shelley Richman Cohen, whose nascent group is working to expand inclusion training courses for rabbinical students of all denominations.
The New York Jewish community offers some of the best programs in the country, yet there are still many unmet needs.
The JCC of Manhattan, for example, is working on plans for an inclusive Jewish day school that will meet the special needs of those children now denied access to existing day schools.A guide to the major programs and services in New York can be found at: http://www.ujafedny.org/disability-directory.
Perhaps the moment is arriving when the grassroots efforts of numerous parents of children and adults with disabilities is paying off. Already the JFNA is speaking with Jewish Funders Network about holding a follow-up conference in New York next May. Advocates are hopeful that the next few years will see a major change in the Jewish community's embrace and celebration of the contribution that people with disabilities can make to the future of the Jewish people.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of Laszlo Strategies, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Her family foundation helped underwrite “Opening Abraham's Tent.”
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