Category Archives: Disabilities rights

An Interview With Michael Stein

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvard Professor Michael Stein about a wide range of issues affecting people with disabilities. Professor Stein is an internationally recognized expert on disability rights, who participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and actively consults with international governments on their disability laws and policies.

Below is part one of the interview. Part two will appear on the blog very soon.
– Ephraim Gopin

Michael Stein1) How well is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being implemented?

The ADA has been a mixed bag. It’s been extraordinarily successful in creating access to public places and public accommodation, but it’s been extraordinarily unsuccessful in affecting employment.

According to many studies, the ADA has had a major effect as far as making the public areas a place where people with and without disabilities can come and go at their leisure and more accessible for people with disabilities. It has improved the quality of people’s lives immeasurably.

As far as employment, we’ve seen a consistent decrease in employment and holding since well before the ADA. It was hoped that the ADA would improve the employment situation but it has not. (Michael has studied disability employment in the US for over 25 years and around the world. A book on this topic will be coming out next month.)

2) What’s the most jarring finding you have found from your studies?

Almost 80% of working age adults with disabilities are unemployed. When the overall unemployment rate reached 9%, it was considered a matter of great public attention and almost a national crisis. But yet the national disability unemployment rate has never been lower than 66% and over the last few years it has held steady at nearly at 80%. The fact that it doesn’t raise the same sort of red flags and calls to action is concerning.

3) Is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) really a game changer? If yes, how so?

I view the CRPD as a remarkable tool that can be used to leverage change. It ultimately depends on local civil societies and how they use the tools. We see it as a lever on a national level for the creation of progressive and inclusive laws, policies and programming.

michael stein II

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On an international level we see it being very effective in how the UN approaches disabilities. We’re seeing donor organizations now changing their guidelines to be inclusive- not as special projects but included in all the projects they’re doing bilaterally. On the individual national level- it really depends on the social and legal culture, what the alternatives are and how active the civil society is, which shows how conducive government is to change. In some places, I’ve been told by ministers that they will not change their policies. In other places, it’s been a wake-up call, it’s been an educational device and policy makers have begun to think how to approach differently almost invariably their largest minority group.

Is it a game- changer? At the end of the day, it depends how active civil society is and how well they pair with non-disability sectors to find areas of common interest and team up with them on projects.

4) The state of technology for people with disabilities- passing grade? Are apps made with people with disabilities in mind? If not, that’s a huge population to not serve.

Globally, new technology has in some areas embraced inclusion. The technology is certainly there to make all these apps accessible. The technology is cheap and incredibly easy to implement. But by and large, the needs and rights of people with disability are not taken into account.

It’s frustrating- I hear the anger and exclusion from many friends and different groups. Especially because this is a new world created by supposedly young, savvy, cosmopolitan people who have no excuse for excluding people with disabilities. To embed barriers into new structures seems to me to be a lost opportunity as well as a harmful and avoidable phenomenon.

Big businesses are by & large aware of it and some are more savvy than others. Microsoft has been rather good on accessibility. Amazon, on the other hand, has been obnoxious on the issue. For example, Amazon has been approached time and again about the Kindle but refuses to make it accessible.

5) Employment discrimination: Do you believe that people with disabilities face barriers to finding a job?

Empirical evidence from all over the globe suggests there’s a real disconnect policy-wise when we think about people with disabilities and the workplace. In terms of Western notions, people are viewed either as work capable or disabled; if they’re disabled, then they’re not meant to be working.  We don’t think enough about people’s different abilities, how to cultivate those abilities, getting them integrated into the workplace, why work is valuable especially when it comes to interacting with other people.

Michael Stein holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. An internationally acclaimed expert on disability law and policy, Stein participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, works with disabled persons organizations around the world, actively consults with international governments on their disability laws and policies, and advises a number of United Nations bodies.

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An Enrichment Of Our Diversity

jo ann cropBy: Jo Ann Simons

Excuse me if this blog is longer than usual but Nelson Mandela was not usual. Along with a world, I am mourning his passing. However, I am embarrassed to say that I am just learning how deep his fight for equality included persons with disabilities. I am sure there are others who saw him only as he fought to end apartheid.

He was so much more. I am thinking often about the reconciliation he practiced and the strength and grace he derived from it.

I have spent my life working towards the full inclusion of persons with disabilities and I am struck how our work has been derailed and slowed by our own inability to reconcile differences.  And how petty they seem in comparison to apartheid. From team members who don’t collaborate, governments that are unreasonable,  agencies unwilling to bend and organizations who don’t partner, we could have achieved our goals if we embraced Mandela’s offer of reconciliation.

We are seeking a just world and I wonder how many of us realize that we had a partner in Nelson Mandela. Below is an excerpt from a message by Nelson Mandela to the Conference for the Disabled April 4, 2004:

We in South Africa are celebrating a decade of non-racial, non-sexist, non-discriminatory democracy. We went to the polls in our third democratic election just this past week. All of this stood in celebration of our democracy, based on the values of human dignity, the achievement of human equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.

Under the equality clause in our constitutions bill of rights we affirm that, and I quote:

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

The constitution continues to affirm that no person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more of the grounds mentioned above.

We have striven to give legislative and regulatory content to these founding precepts in our nation-building constitution. We have in this past decade progressed, slow as it may have been, towards living together in the acknowledgement of the basic equality and right to dignity of all human beings.

We have tried to give special emphasis to the rights of people living with disability. It is so easy to think of equality demands with reference primarily to race, color, religion and gender; and to forget, or to relegate to secondary importance, the vast discrimination against disabled persons.

We cannot claim to reach anywhere near to where a society should be in terms of practical equality of the disabled. We continue to try. We realize that legislation and regulations are not sufficient or the end of the long walk to equality and non-discrimination. Education, raising of awareness, conscientisation, eradication of stigmatisation: these are key elements in achieving non-discrimination against the disabled in practice and in their everyday lives.

A democracy is an order of social equality and non-discrimination. Our compatriots who are disabled challenge us in a very special way to manifest in real life those values of democracy.

It is not a question of patronizing philanthropy towards disabled people. They do not need the patronage of the non-disabled. It is not for them to adapt to the dominant and dominating world of the so-called non-disabled. It is for us to adapt our understanding of a common humanity; to learn of the richness of how human life is diverse; to recognize the presence of disability in our human midst as an enrichment of our diversity.

It’s time  to honor his legacy and pledge to work together- governments, organizations and individuals- to achieve the opportunities for persons with disabilities. The legacy of Nelson Mandela could be honored with a simple yet compelling gesture by the  United States ratifying  the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers

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Lessons From My Son

5 of ClubsBy: Shelley Richman Cohen

My son Nathaniel was a person who never could take “no” for an answer. It wasn’t that he never listened or misbehaved to get his way. He just was a believer that anything in life is possible and therefore could never accept the word no. “Say ‘maybe’ Mommy, not ‘No.’ Just maybe you could change your mind.” He always held out hope for change even if he heard the word ”no.”

I learned much from Nathaniel and his too short life, and I have found that with each passing day I have become more like him, I too have trouble accepting the word “no” and look for the “yeses” and “maybes” in life.

Throughout Nathaniel’s lifetime I heard more “no’s” than I care to remember. “No” to a Jewish Day school education (from every religious denomination.) “No” to a mainstream summer Jewish camp experience. “No” to creating accessible programming in my synagogue. I always believed in Nathaniel’s right to be a part of all of these Jewish institutions despite his muscular dystrophy, so my husband and I kept trying to find our way in and, despite many rejections, Nathaniel ultimately got to be part of the greater Jewish community through its schools, camps and synagogues. 

Not only was Nathaniel a part of these institutions, he added greatly to the spirit of these places. At both his eighth grade and high school graduations he received standing ovations from both faculty and classmates alike. At camp, he not only became a camper but ultimately was put on Sport staff even as he became a quadriplegic – his mouth worked and he could use a whistle to referee the games. 

Nathaniel CohenThe truth is wherever Nathaniel went he was cherished by all who knew him. So the question remains – why was the first response to Nathaniel’s being included in our Jewish institutions always “No.”  I place the reason somewhere between fear and ignorance. At the time Rabbis, Principals, and Camp Directors just didn’t know how to see the possibilities. They were overwhelmed with the thoughts of dealing with someone who fell outside the norm with which they were used to dealing.

That was sixteen years ago and things have improved. Now almost every Orthodox summer overnight camp has an inclusion program for children with disabilities and camps run by other denominations do as well. But schools and synagogues still seem to be struggling with the concept of inclusion. It is for this reason that I have created The Jewish Inclusion Project, with the help of a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation. The prefix “in” in the word “inclusion,” sounds so easy to do – come to me and I will let you in. But the reality is that inclusion is a very proactive process.

One has to proactively include people with disabilities. A person with visual impairment won’t think of praying in your synagogue if they don’t know that a Braille or large print prayer book is readily available from which they can pray. A family that has a member with Tourette syndrome won’t feel comfortable going to a prayer service unless they know the Rabbi and community value people with differences, even if those differences are occasionally disruptive. The Jewish Inclusion Project teaches rabbinical students and Jewish leadership how to create proactively inclusive Jewish environments in synagogues, schools, camps and Jewish organizations. Through Jewish learning, role playing, lectures and panels, TJIP teaches our future and present leaders how to proactively create communities that are inclusive of people with disabilities so that every Jew has a place at the table.

In time, I hope to prove Nathaniel correct, and see to it that there are no “no’s,” only “maybes” that can turn into an enthusiastic “YES!”

Shelley Richman Cohen is the Founder and Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, which educates rabbinical students, Rabbis and communal leaders on the obligation, need and methodology for leading the creation of more inclusive synagogues, schools, summer camps and community organizations that fully embrace the communal, social and religious needs of people with disabilities and their families. The Jewish Inclusion Project is funded in part by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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Roadblock To Inclusion

Shelly ChristensenBy: Shelly Christensen

“Can I get a ride with you to the upcoming board meeting?” my friend Sharon messaged me on Facebook.

Sharon lives 5 blocks from me. I was happy to have her company on the ride to our local synagogue, Bet Shalom.

“Where’s Metro Mobility?”

Metro Mobility is para-transit for eligible people with disabilities, which provides door-to-door service.

Sharon doesn’t ride in many cars. She uses a battery powered wheelchair and relies on Metro Mobility to live her independent life. She lives in a first ring suburb and Metro Mobility will pick her up and take her to any place in the service area.

The problem with getting to the board meeting is that Bet Shalom is six blocks south of the service area.

Sharon only finds out on the day of the meeting if she has a ride. Board meetings run from 7 to 9pm. She has to be ready to leave home at 5pm and may wait until 11pm to go home.

Sharon joined Bet Shalom 12 years ago, when the congregation moved to a new accessible building. She wanted to become involved in the synagogue and she wanted a place that was accessible to her in her motorized wheelchair.


Sharon’s dream of belonging, that essential hallmark of inclusion, motivated her to become active. She attends Shabbat services, Torah study, and congregational events. She learned to read Hebrew, chant the Torah portion and celebrated her bat mitzvah. Sharon is co-chair of the Inclusion Committee where she is an inspiring leader. In May 2013 she was elected to the Board.

Sharon brought the transportation matter to the Board. Members wanted to write letters of support to Metro Mobility and some offered rides. But we all knew letter writing wouldn’t change the service area. Getting rides meant Sharon had to use her manual chair and be pushed around the synagogue.

In the end, Sharon told me that she wouldn’t be going to the meeting. She was on her way to a family bat mitzvah in Phoenix and would miss the meeting.

I wondered why it was easier to get to Phoenix than to get to the synagogue.

We have identified the barrier so many people face. It is not only their problem to solve. When a Jewish community authentically commits to inclusion, transportation becomes a shared concern.  How do people get into a welcoming community when they must travel outside of established service areas to their destinations?

We must know this: Jews with disabilities must have access to the same opportunities in Jewish life as their peers.

Changing attitudes, raising awareness, and welcoming people are all important for Jewish organizations to do. If we are honest with ourselves, we must concern ourselves with transportation, supporting peoples’ literal journeys to and from the community.

We will gladly drive Sharon to Board meetings and push her in her manual chair. I cannot help but wonder how many others want to participate in Jewish life but cannot journey there.

Shelly Christensen, MA is the founder of Inclusion Innovations, which supports Jewish institutions and communities through training, consultation and design of inclusion initiatives. She is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, partnering with the Ruderman Family Foundation; author of the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities; and Program Manager of the award-winning Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities. Shelly is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism Adjunct Faculty.

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The Right To Choose: A Lesson From The Maccabees

Rabbi Michael LevyBy: Rabbi Michael Levy

When Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem in 332 BCE, he permitted the Jews to continue traditional worship and rituals in the Holy Temple. The Jews honored him by naming some of their children “Alexander.”  (It would please Alexander that a legendary Jewish baseball pitcher bears a derivative of his name: Sandy.)

Some of Alexander’s successors were despotic rulers. Nevertheless, as long as they granted Jews the right to freely practice their religion, the Jews tolerated them. But Antiochus Epiphanes, believing that he could strengthen his kingdom by instituting pagan worship in the Temple and throughout Israel, banned traditional Jewish worship and rituals.  His “no choice” edicts sparked the Maccabees’ successful rebellion, commemorated on Chanukah.

After the Maccabees’ victory, their leader Simon decreed that the non-Jewish Idumeans either convert to Judaism or leave Israel. His bickering successors also forgot about choice, concentrating instead on accumulating wealth and power. One faction allied itself with Rome, hastening the demise of the Maccabean dynasty

The Chanukah liturgy scarcely mentions individual Maccabees, perhaps because their descendants failed to preserve freedom. Chanukah prayers focus instead on God championing Israel’s cause, enabling the faithful to purify and rededicate the Temple.

Choices for People with Disabilities

The Maccabees’ rise and downfall teach us that those who achieve freedom must ensure that citizens retain the right to make meaningful choices. Now that we with disabilities are gaining freedom to participate fully in society, it’s crucial that we, to the greatest extent possible, choose our own paths to inclusion.

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

There are still professionals, parents and people with disabilities who say “let the experts make the decisions.” Sometimes, people “labeled” with a particular condition or disorder are steered towards others who share that label. While input from educators and doctors is invaluable, a person is much more than the sum of his test results and diagnoses.

Decision-making should start early. The developmentally delayed child who never chooses the red dress or the green dress may later struggle to decide when it’s safe to cross the street.

Disability-related decisions should be based on accurate information, knowledge of “best practices” in synagogues and communities, awareness of financial and technology resources, input from experienced people with disabilities and the principle that the person, not the disability, is primary.

Choices on the Path to Inclusion

Some of us, conscious of the stigma still associated with disability, choose to hide what makes us different.

Others prefer the label “special needs individuals.” “Special” can be misinterpreted to mean that those in this category aren’t expected to follow rules and assume responsibilities like their “non-special” counterparts.

Still others, myself among them, believe that disability itself doesn’t prevent full participation in society. Rather, attitudinal, architectural, communications and transportation barriers keep us from integrating fully into our communities.  We must work together to eliminate or minimize those barriers.

May God crown our victories with the wisdom to maximize the choices of those for whom we advocate.

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, 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.” He also  writes a weekly “disability blog.”

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

Please note: There will be no post on Thursday due to the holiday of Thanksgiving.
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Fifty Years Later: JFK’s Lasting Legacy

President Kennedy, 1963: “It was said, in an earlier age, that the mind of a man is a far country which can neither be approached nor explored. But, today, under present conditions of scientific achievement, it will be possible for a nation as rich in human and material resources as ours to make the remote reaches of the mind accessible. The mentally ill and the mentally retarded need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”

(Editor’s note: Although the language we use has changed, the hope expressed by President Kennedy remains the same)

simonsJo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers. She remarked: “As we all have been reminded over and over again about the great national tragedy that our nation endured when President Kennedy was assassinated, I noticed a Facebook entry from Anthony Shriver, the President’s nephew. He wrote about his uncle’s call to service and the great accomplishments of his short presidency in the area of disability. I thought Anthony’s message was one that should be spread and applied to the work we do at the Cardinal Cushing Centers.”

Below is the message Jo Ann sent her staff yesterday…


Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. While the media will concentrate on the tragedy and what might have been, I will be using the day to reflect upon one of his gifts to the world. President Kennedy ushered in the age of inclusion and acceptance for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Here at the Cardinal Cushing Centers, we bore witness to his future legacy when, in 1957, then Senator Kennedy dedicated Kennedy Hall in memory of his brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. This building was made possible by the generous $400,000 gift from the Kennedy Foundation.

As President, Kennedy signed the first major U.S. legislation to help people with intellectual disabilities at a time when individuals with ID were routinely institutionalized and locked away.

WH/HO Portrait

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Inspired by the challenges in the life of his sister Rosemary, President Kennedy became a pioneering advocate for people with disabilities. He was the first president to welcome a person with intellectual and developmental disability in to the White House. Fueled by the passion of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, he established a President’s Panel on Mental Retardation. Within the National Institute of Health, he created what would become the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Human Development. And he supported Mrs. Shriver’s  creation of Special Olympics. In the years following the Kennedy administration, Congress passed 116 acts or amendments providing support for people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

Tomorrow, I will remember exactly where I was on that tragic day but, I also will remember where we are today because President Kennedy dared to be bold. And thankful to all of you for choosing to continue part of his legacy.

I am grateful.

Jo Ann

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Ten Steps To Make Your Congregation More Inclusive, Part III

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

We thank Lisa for this three part series on making congregations more inclusive. We encourage you to read part one and part two and then continue reading below.

One of the greatest mistakes I have seen congregations make is to bring together an amazing group of committed lay leaders and professionals who meet frequently to develop a vision and goals and then create a plan to bring to the community at large.  Yet, despite all good intentions, there is only a small group of people who are “in the know”.  This lack of transparency frequently dooms an initiative before it ever gets off the ground.

So Step 7 in my “10 Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive” is:


Let the congregation know about your efforts.  Changing a culture requires transparency and support; keeping your work a “secret” until a program or an event is “ready” can be a mistake. Inclusion is not about an isolated program, it is about relationships. Invite others into your conversations.

Steps 8, 9 & 10: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Ok, not quite. But the idea is to put your goals into action, build in the opportunity for assessment and reflection, and then do it all again.

When I was hired thirteen years ago by a Reform congregation in NJ, there were a handful of children in the religious school whose needs were not being met.  The desire was there to ensure that their experience would be as meaningful as anyone else’s.  And so I was invited to help design a program that would best meet their needs and the needs of the community.  Significantly, even from the beginning, my role was not to help teachers figure out what to do with the kids who were “ruining” classes for other students.  The concept was that everyone had a right to a Jewish education and we were going to figure out how to offer it.

Courtesy of B'nai Amoona Synagogue, St. Louis

Courtesy of B’nai Amoona Synagogue, St. Louis

I believe that this attitude, which is shared by the professionals, lay leaders and synagogue membership, has helped us to consistently meet our inclusive goals. Our school program offers a variety of options for students and we do offer pull-out classes, a concept that is sometimes criticized by advocates of inclusion.  What we have learned, however, is that there are some students in our community who need this level of individual attention in order to be successfully included in the life of the congregation.

For us, our work within the school has led us to explore ways to make worship and other aspects of synagogue life more inclusive. This is a work in progress for all of us.  We consistently learn from our efforts, reflect and evolve, finding the right options for everyone in our community.

As recent studies demonstrate a changing Jewish demographic in America and research illustrates that individuals with disabilities are turned away from synagogues, religious schools and other organizational programs; saying “yes” is a significant step toward inclusion.  Keep at it. Inclusion requires intentionality, dedication and perseverance. It is hard work, but it is work that is important, meaningful and satisfying.

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

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Ten Steps To Make Your Congregation More Inclusive, Part II

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

In Part 1 of “10 Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive” I began to outline some of the steps that a congregation can take when they desire to become more inclusive but are not sure where to begin.  Here are the next steps in moving a congregation toward inclusion of people with disabilities.

4. Set Goals
Bring together the key stakeholders identified in Step 1.  Review the vision for inclusion created in Step 3.  Here is the opportunity to dream. Do not engage in discussions of what may or may not be possible at this stage, as you will limit yourself.  Brainstorm all that you would hope to accomplish.  How about a fully accessible sanctuary? Maybe an amplification system for the hearing impaired or Braille siddurim for the visually impaired? Could you consider live streaming services for those unable to travel?  Now think about your school.  Is it fully accessible with inclusive programs and opportunities for students to learn at their own pace? Are all children able to experience the joy of becoming bar/bat mitzvah? Think about the community at large. Do members of your community attend programs or join committees? If not, consider a survey to uncover and understand the barriers that currently exist in your community.

5. Prioritize Goals
This is the point where you must discuss what is realistic and possible in the short-term and what must be tabled for a later point in time.  This is most frequently the place where congregations get stuck.  Ideally, you will choose 3-5 goals to act upon, but if you must choose only one to enable movement forward, do that.  It is critical that you leave this stage with at least one actionable goal.

6. Get Help
If one of your stakeholders is not a professional in the disability world, this is the time to explore bringing in a consultant. Here is the place to find additional individuals with disabilities to share their perspective.  The goals you have set will determine if you should seek an architect, an educator, a lawyer, etc.

Dream big, work hard and don’t allow yourselves to get frustrated by differences in opinion. Keeping your eye on the vision will help you to set realistic and practical goals to keep your work moving forward.

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

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Our Inclusion Journey Is Just Beginning

Alan GillBy: Alan Gill

Meet Rachel and Dana.

These Israeli women, both in their late twenties, experienced a life passage recently that for many occurs at a much earlier age: they signed leases to move into their first apartments all on their own.

The twist?

Rachel and Dana both have severe physical disabilities that at one time might have consigned them for life to state institutions. But today, that is not their destiny.

Why? Because they were part of an innovative program that helps young Israeli adults with disabilities make the transition from institutions or from their parents homes to the larger community.

This achievement, a pinnacle in their lives, represents a tipping point of sorts, one I have seen throughout my travels around the world.

That’s because there is something extraordinary happening in Jewish communities and in Israel, something that demonstrates a real forward movement in how we embrace and create more inclusive communities for people with disabilities. And Rachel and Dana are just two examples of that change.

At the center – indeed the very heart– of this global transformation is the fact that inclusion is not just an easily tossed-about catchphrase in Jewish community life anymore. Today it is the driver.

For years now, we have talked about the importance of including Jews with disabilities in Jewish life or of helping people with disabilities live independently. In many ways these critically important slogans were the first step in achieving what is now a reality. But often we would stop short there, not doing enough to turn those words into action.

Today, however, we’re taking huge steps to ensure that Jewish life is available to all who seek it, creating opportunities for those who had faced barriers in the past, and providing unimpeded access to services and success and independence for people with disabilities. And in the process, we’ve begun to share and scale these models to create a “new normal” for our community.

So how did we get here?

In my opinion, by actualizing and bridging two great ideas: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” often attributed to Gandhi, and Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We have been blessed as a community to have standout leaders and activists who have pushed the envelope for the inclusion of people with disabilities across the global Jewish world. These advocates have embodied the very change they feel so passionately about.

Whether they themselves have a disability, have a friend or family member who has been impacted by a disability, or have been transformed by seeing the success achieved by a person with a disability when they are given the tools to thrive, these leaders are putting their professional reputations, philanthropic support, and personal talents where their mouths are. And to their credit they have not backed down.

Alan Gill (JDC)

I understand full well how that kind of passion and vision can impact organizations and communities. Since 2009, my organization JDC – together with our partners the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Government of Israel – has been working to ensure that Israel’s million plus citizens with disabilities have access to services, live independently, and that Israeli society becomes increasingly more inclusive of them.

We call this effort Israel Unlimited and to date, it has helped tens of thousands of Israelis with disabilities. Such transformative impact is the result of the leadership of my friend Jay Ruderman.

He has personified his passion, shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and his home in Israel to not just advocate for his vision of inclusion, but to fund life-changing initiatives, to award Jewish organizations and outlets that outshine with their achievements in this realm, and to push new models and ideas about inclusion, whether it be in the areas of employment or Jewish schooling.

And Jay is not alone. From the disabled director of a Center for Independent Living in Beersheva, a kindergarten teacher in Moscow bucking cultural fear of people with disabilities, or the rabbi of a suburban NJ synagogue welcoming families with children with disabilities into his congregation, these community members, and leaders in their own right, are boldly challenging the status quo – or simple ignorance – to ensure that people with disabilities are given their fair shot at the Jewish experience. They are the very change they desire in their communities.

When you have those kinds of inspiring leadership models, what follows next is action that changes lives. It wasn’t just enough, in JDC’s case, to walk the walk of inclusion. By embracing the change we wanted to make in lives of Israel’s citizens with disabilities and by then building out programs for them based on research, testing, and a better understanding of the services and opportunities they were lacking, we willed into being the very initiatives that would move the needle.

But we also did something else: we dreamed. For years now we have been running successful employment programs for an array of populations in Israel, most notably Haredim and Israeli Arabs. And we knew that Israelis with disabilities faced similar obstacles to the workforce – cultural misunderstanding of their abilities, lack of skills and training, and apprehension by employers.

We also knew from our previous successes that these obstacles were not true barriers if we marshaled resources and worked with our partners to ensure Israelis with disabilities had opportunities to work and thrive.

So just this summer, we launched RampUp, a program that trains pre-existing employment center staff to offer assistance and services to people with disabilities. Additionally, we included a variety of employers in RampUp’s roll-out, thereby creating a welcoming corporate culture for people with disabilities so that they are welcomed into the workforce and recognized for their skills and talents. With our initiative, Israelis with disabilities in five pilot cities in Northern Israel dream no longer about holding a job and living a life full of choice and dignity.

These achievements are about more than simple, pioneering efforts in the Jewish community to build inclusive, welcoming environments. They are about what is possible when you have the determination, unbridled passion, and tide of history on your side. You can make anything happen. And we have.

So let’s recommit to this task we have set forth for ourselves, whether we be Jewish professionals, philanthropists, or everyday community members. After all, our work is about strengthening Jewish people. And our shared dedication is to ensuring that people with disabilities – especially those in our global Jewish community – are right beside us and, in some cases, leading the way.

Together, with one voice, and many actions, we’re making it so. And future generations – like Rachel and Dana – will thank us.

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). JDC works in more more than 70 countries and Israel to rescue Jews in danger, alleviate hunger and hardship, innovate Jewish life and create lasting Jewish connections, and provide a Jewish response to natural and man-made disasters. Follow them on Twitter for more info.

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Ten Steps To Make Your Congregation More Inclusive

Lisa FriedmanTen Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive

By: Lisa Friedman

Inclusion of individuals with disabilities in congregational life is being discussed more and more frequently. And while this is a good thing, it can also be a controversial concept that stirs up a lot of emotion.  When done right, inclusion fosters belonging.  It’s about more than the structures and facilities.  A ramp is just a sloped sidewalk if those who need it aren’t able to fully participate in the life of your community.  This may seem daunting and overwhelming for a community that has not previously made accommodations or offered inclusive programming for individuals with disabilities.  It does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.  My advice is to start small, but start somewhere.

Ten Steps to Begin to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive:

1. Identify the key stakeholders.
Inclusion of people with disabilities is not a one-person job.  While a single individual can light a spark, no one person can change the culture of a synagogue alone. Assemble a core group of professionals and lay people. Include someone with disabilities and/or the parent of a child with disabilities. It is essential to adhere to the adage, “nothing about us, without us”.  Helping individuals to see their value to both the community and the inclusion effort is both welcoming and validating.  It demonstrates that you are about far more than “lip service”.

2.  Recognize that inclusion is about changing a culture.
Changing a culture is a process. Recognize that you have embarked on a long-term endeavor and that the process itself can and will be as significant as the destination.  We are taught, kol yisrael areivim zeh lezeh (all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another) and “Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah—whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.”(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah) We must take our teachings to heart and use them to help everyone in our communities to recognize the value of inclusion.

3. Create a vision.
With your key group of stakeholders, develop your vision of inclusion.  There are many tools available to guide an organization through the visioning process and most synagogues already have a Vision Statement and are familiar with the process. Ensure that your vision of inclusion is in line with your synagogue’s vision.  Here is just one example: (name of synagogue) celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and welcomes diversity within our sacred community. We strive to ensure that all members of (name of synagogue) are able to participate meaningfully in all spiritual, educational, celebratory, and life event activities at the synagogue.

In Part 2 of this series I will explore practical goal setting as the next steps in helping to create an inclusive congregation.

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

Read our last post: Affiliated But Not Included
Come visit us on Facebook to learn more about inclusion of people with disabilities

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