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Sunflower Interview

Sara Portman Milner (L), Laurie Wexler (R)

Sara Portman Milner (L), Laurie Wexler (R)

Sunflower Bakery was a recipient of the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. Below is part one of an interview conducted with the founders, Sara Portman Milner and Laurie Wexler, where they discuss what makes the bakery unique, the community support and how they view inclusion.

Please share with our readers your personal history- where you grew up, professional career etc.

Sara: I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I was the fifth of six kids. When I was 14 years old, my parents gave birth to a child with Down syndrome. Our family pediatrician and the rabbi of our synagogue told my parents, “don’t bring him home. You have a beautiful family- send him away.” They did the exact opposite- all the kids wanted their baby brother to come home.

My career has been devoted to giving opportunities to people with disabilities- in Savannah, there weren’t many opportunities. There was primarily exclusion. My brother was actually the first to have an inclusive bar mitzvah at our congregation.

I’m a social worker by training. I started the disabilities program at the Greater Washington JCC where I worked for 34 years. The good news is that the Jewish community in DC got together to aim for inclusion. The bakery was a great opportunity to have a match for what I do.

Laurie: I grew up in upstate New York & South Florida, went to college in Texas and received a Masters in Jewish Communal Service from the Hornstein Program at Brandeis. I have worked for several Jewish organizations focusing on local community needs and Israel initiatives in Florida and DC.

My husband was elected to Congress in 1996, so our family moved to DC. I volunteered at the Ivymount School for students with special needs and the experience stuck with me. I have met numerous adults that have children with disabilities who are eager to find opportunities that will enable their children to become productive members of society. This led me to start exploring ideas for employment training for young adults with disabilities.

The most attractive possibility was to create a pastry arts training program. It also turned out that the DC Jewish community could support another kosher bakery. So, after visiting a bakery in Virginia Beach that employs individuals with disabilities, we married the concept of a kosher bakery with preparing young adults with disabilities to enter the job market.

What makes Sunflower Bakery unique?

Sara: Our chef says: It’s not about baking pastries- it’s about helping people have a career. They should have choices, have meaningful choices. We’re giving them the skills to a career that wasn’t an option to them before. Traditional baking schools are not an option for them. We allow them to develop skills in something they’re interested in. The individualized nature and going beyond skills training (inclusive training) makes it unique. We’re not just teaching baking skills- it’s life skills, professional skills (grooming, showing up etc)- things that are being taught in a very natural, inclusive environment

Laurie: Sunflower is a unique hybrid: it’s a kosher bakery and it’s a place to learn skills. As a nonprofit, it is helpful to have the earned revenue from the sales of products. Sunflower works hard to help the students become trained and ready for the workplace. Some of the students don’t have a service provider or support system in place & we can help get them started. In the end, we can help them to become employees who can go to work and do a job like the employer wants.

Sunflower students preparing mandel bread dough

Sunflower students preparing mandel bread dough

What special teaching methods/special services do you offer/use at the bakery?

Sara: Part of the beauty is that none of the pastry chefs have experience with special education. Therefore, we can mold them to teach and work with the students. We get information from the students, get their individualized education plan which educates us on what avenues are best for teaching them. Do they learn better by reading, watching, listening? We use every learning modality available so each individual learns the skills he/she needs.

Laurie: The very first thing we decided was to hire a professional pastry chef because we knew we wanted a program that was focused on the profession and to prepare them for employment. We were volunteers but we had a professional pastry chef who was paid. Now we have 3 pastry chefs, two work directly with the students and one manages production all day long. We chose baking and pastry- if you can learn to follow a recipe and do what’s asked, you can be successful at producing that product.

Sara: The repetitive nature of the work; you don’t change your cookie recipe every week. We have to deal with sensory issues (light, sound, smells)- they have to be able to work in the kitchen. There are certain accommodations we took into account to make sure they’ll be successful out there.

Did people approve of you starting a bakery that trains/employs people with disabilities?

In the very beginning, it seemed a little difficult for some people to envision. We knew that to be successful, we needed to meet not only the need for employment training for individuals with disabilities, but also provide a broader community benefit. This benefit was providing a kosher, parve bakery under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. Our synagogue, Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, MD, readily donated kitchen space for us to begin the pilot program. Community members first purchased our products because they liked the organization’s mission, they purchased a second time because they liked the product. We then knew we were on the right path. The community is enormously supportive.

What difficulties did you face when starting the business?

The main difficulty in starting this venture was determining the correct blend of a skilled employment training program and a production bakery with pastries for sale. A related challenge was determining an accommodating course of instruction and training that would best position our students for success in employment.

How do you define inclusion?

Laurie: Inclusion is a value. Everyone should have the same opportunities, do as they wish (which goes beyond the educational setting) and people becoming valued members of society. It’s a way of life, giving people the possibility to have meaningful relationships so they can join the community & reach their highest potential.

Sara: It’s NOT about numbers. You have no clue how many people have a disability out there. Everyone should be given opportunities to be the best they can be. While that is not the same for every person, each individual should have the chance to apply their achieved skills to a job to be self-supporting and productive members of a community.

Sara Portman Milner and Laurie Wexler are the co-founders and co-directors of Sunflower Bakery located in Gaithersburg, MD.  They can be reached at or Visit them on Facebook at Sunflower Bakery. 

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One Grant- A Lifetime Of Change

Carole ParrishBy: Carole Parrish

The J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation was created in 1954 and remains a living legacy to Zella and Jack Butler and their deep commitment to New York and the Jewish community. Zella and Jack were my aunt and uncle. They were warm, deeply caring people and they treated their nieces and nephews with special affection. The Foundation is committed to continuing Jack and Zella’s vision with diligence, compassion and creativity.

In 1939 their only child, Barbara, was born with severe developmental disabilities. As there were few options for people with disabilities at that time, Barbara was cared for at the Devereux School in Philadelphia from the age of four until she died in 1993.

The Butlers’ first-hand knowledge of the challenges encountered by individuals with disabilities and their families led to their lifelong commitment to insuring that people with disabilities had access to programs that would enhance their lives. For years, Zella read to visually impaired university students helping them realize their academic dreams in spite of their disabilities. Zella often said, “I have graduated from most of the colleges and universities in the New York area by osmosis.” Jack was a man of humor and grace who had a special rapport with young people, serving as their mentor and friend; his devotion was unconditional. Together they opened their home for Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations. Young and old, family and strangers became friends around their table.

In 2003 the Foundation started funding in Boston, continuing the work that was started in NY. One of the early organizations I met with was The Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE). AANE works to support individuals with Apserger Syndrome and similar autism spectrum issues and their families. They help individuals build meaningful, connected lives by providing information, education, community, support and advocacy.

Dania Jekel, AANE Executive Director: “The Butler Foundation began funding AANE’s child and teen programs in 2005. Before that, our Child and Teen Services department didn’t exist: We had three clinical staff members who handled all calls and questions relating to individuals of all ages, from 2–90 years old. Thanks to the Butler Foundation grant we were able to hire an additional part-time staff person, which greatly enhanced the support we can offer to families”.

Butler educator's conference

AANE Educator’s Conference

The extra staff also enabled AANE to expand educational offerings. Since 2005 they have developed and offered several different seminars and support groups held both in person and online. The online offerings are able to reach families throughout New England who otherwise would be isolated and not able to benefit from all that AANE has to offer. Interaction with parents has helped to shape subsequent programs, ensuring that they are meeting the current needs of the community.

The grant has allowed AANE to offer many options for learning, community building, and problem solving:

  • Asperger Syndrome Information Line:Parents can call or email AANE Child and Teen Services staff whenever they need referrals, have questions or concerns, or just need support to raise and educate their child.
  • Parent Topic Nights: These are free events to discuss the issues that keep parents up at night. Topic nights also include time for parents to meet and network.
  • Workshops: AANE staff and trainers offer in-depth, practical workshops designed around parents’ top concerns, from preventing meltdowns to handling homework to IEPs.
  • Ask the Expert Series: Professionals in the field share their expertise and answer questions on a variety of special topics.
  • Consultations: AANE staff members provide customized information and guidance in order to help parents feel more confident in their ability to plan and advocate for what their children need at school, at home and in the community.
  • Online Support Groups: Groups are free for current members. AANE parents can connect and communicate with other parents 24/7/365 online. AANE also offers moderated discussion/support groups for parents of children or teens.
  • Transition GPS: A coordinated set of workshops and services that address families’ needs during this developmental stage.

Families from the New England area and around the globe have benefited from the work that AANE is doing with children and youth.

One parent writes:

“When my son was diagnosed with AS at age 7, the diagnostician urged us to join AANE. He could not have made a more useful suggestion. Our son is now almost 17, and over the last ten years we have attended many meetings, workshops, webinars, support groups, and conferences. We keep coming back because AANE parent resources are always on the cutting edge of best practices in the field.  Every AANE staff person I know is both knowledgeable and empathetic. The email list for parents of teens with AS is a regular treasure trove of information. My parenting has been much more effective because of AANE, and when I meet younger parents who have a child with AS I always advise them to join.  We are very, very fortunate to have AANE in our community.”

It is gratifying to know that so many individuals, families, schools and communities are being served by the work that AANE is doing. We have watched them grow, always on the cutting edge, always finding ways to serve families, regardless of distance or circumstance. Jack and Zella Butler would be so pleased to know that work like this is being done as a result of their life and their legacy.

Carole Parrish is the Vice President of the JE&ZB Butler Foundation. She heads up the foundation’s work with people with disabilities and at risk youth in the Boston area.

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A Thousand Words

jo ann cropBy: Jo Ann Simons

Sometimes a picture is just a picture and sometimes it’s more. On a recent Caribbean vacation we were taking a bus tour when I looked forward and saw something so ordinary but so powerful that I grabbed my cellphone and took a picture. It was a young man’s leg in the aisle of the bus. He was wearing rugged footwear and a fashionable bathing suit and a polo shirt. His hands were clasped together. I couldn’t see his face but he might be handsome, thoughtful and strong. I imagined him happy, accomplished and satisfied. I saw him, in that moment, how I do see him and how I hope the world sees him.

Without judgement.

Jo Ann St KittsThis picture is my son and it was taken last month on St. Kitts. I was sitting several rows behind him on that bus. Without his face visible, it was possible for me to see, for several exquisite moments, the hope I have for a truly inclusive world. A world where Jonathan was judged by his employment success and not by the facial features that tell the world he has Down syndrome. A man who has his own home, who decides what time to go to bed, get up, shower and what time to eat. What if they saw him as a powerful swimmer and not someone whose chest is defined by the scars of open heart surgery? What if they saw him as a man with 6000 songs on his I Pod and not someone wearing hearing aids?

What if disability were invisible and we judged people by their character? While I believe that differences and individuality ought to be celebrated and embraced, they are NOT a reason to exclude or discriminate.

Or judge.

What if it didn’t matter because we didn’t notice?

Or care?

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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An Inclusive Tu Bishvat Seder

Daniel SchwartzBy: Daniel Schwartz

A highlight of the year for the entire New England Yachad community is the Tu B’Shevat Seder with K’sharim and Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue, which was held recently in Newton, MA. The Tu B’Shevat Seder ceremony commemorates the new year for trees, which falls on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat. Individuals of all ages with disabilities, their families and the broader Jewish community participated. Congregation Shaarei Tefillah and its rabbi, Benjamin Samuels, have consistently shown eagerness to take initiatives to include people with disabilities into their community. Shaarei also co-sponsored the event and was recently recognized nationally by the Hineinu Initiative as one of the most “Inclusive synagogues in the country.”

Over 130 people attended the Tu B’shevat Seder. Over forty teen ‘peer participants’ also attended the Seder to enjoy the evening alongside their Yachad friends. At Yachad we don’t have “volunteers” because everything we do is inclusive – so our cadre or middle and high school students without disabilities, who attend activities alongside the individuals with disabilities, are called peer participants.

The Seder opened with two activities: working on a community mural with artist Tova Speter and completing a make-and-take arts and crafts project. The tables of the Shaarei Tefillah social hall were adorned with art supplies, make-your-own flower pots, stencils, and ceramic tiles waiting to be decorated. As the Seder participants began to create these bright, nature and/or tree-related projects, the atmosphere was one of friendship. Around the room, people helped each other out with their art, offering Tu B’Shevat inspired ideas for each other’s art projects and socializing. Eventually, the vast majority of people in the room had their own project to take home– either a decorative tile or a flower pot– and each was specific to each participant’s taste, yet united as part of one general theme of Tu B’Shevat and renewal.

Yachad tu bishvat
Perhaps most impressively, the girls of The Binah School in Sharon, MA led an array of activities. First, these motivated students publicized their recent projects in school that were part of a Binah School unit that focused on inclusion. Then, the Binah School invited the seder participants, table by table, outside into the synagogue’s atrium to contribute to their mural. The mural created by the Binah school and Tova Speter is traveling in pieces to disabilities groups and programs from across Greater Boston in addition to Yachad and K’sharim and is set to be the first public mural on display in the town of Sharon. The mural represents values of community and sharing. Every participant who wished to contribute had an opportunity to draw his or her own design in an individual portion of the mural. This activity was a great builder of self-esteem for all, especially the artistically talented Seder participants. (Unfortunately, I do not fit into this category!)

The Tu B’Shevat Seder  continued with eating fruits and nuts of all kinds- from papaya to mango, kiwi to apricots, carob to cashews. The goal was to commemorate the new year for the trees and celebrate what they bring forth.

This year’s Tu B’Shevat seder was fun, inspirational, and unifying for our communities. We hope we can reach even higher heights in Seders to come!

Daniel Schwartz is a senior at The Maimonides School in Brookline. Among his many other hobbies and interests, which include baseball, acting, and Jewish learning, he has been involved for the past three years in New England Yachad.  Daniel writes, “Our local Yachad club began as a small group of Maimo students who would go together to events within the Jewish community with a handful of people with disabilities. It remained small for many years. After a few of us attended Yachad’s National Leadership Shabbaton 2 years ago, we became committed to helping transform our Yachad chapter. Our commitment to doing more programs with individuals with disabilities received a huge boost with the support of Liz Offen, an inclusion expert, hired as the Director of New England Yachad. In a short time, our chapter grew to more than 250 participants– students and adults, people with and without disabilities, within the broader Jewish community.” Contact New England Yachad at

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Third Annual Ruderman Prize In Inclusion Announced

We are happy to announce the launch of the third annual Ruderman Prize in Inclusion global competition. The Prize recognizes organizations who have demonstrated their commitment to the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the Jewish community through innovative programs and services. The $250,000 prize will be split equally by five organizations.

“Our foundation is seeking to recognize and award excellence in the inclusion of people with disabilities in our Jewish community around the globe,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “It is our hope that by shining a light on the leaders in inclusion in our community that we will encourage other organizations to follow their lead and effectuate lasting change. We believe that a more inclusive Jewish community is a fair and flourishing one for all.”

Come over to Facebook, Like our Page and watch a video of Jay announcing the launch of this year’s prize.

Over the last two years, fifteen organizations worldwide have been recipients of the prize, including organizations in Russia, the UK, the United States, Mexico, Israel, South Africa and Argentina. The winners include schools, a synagogue, a dance company, a bakery and organizations that serve all Jews, whether they have a disability or not.

Prize in inclusion logoFully inclusive programs ensure that everyone can participate together, without stigma or imposed limitations. Each year, the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion honors the programs and organizations around the world whose work best exemplifies the full inclusion of people with disabilities, celebrating them as inspiration and models which could be replicated elsewhere. The Ruderman Prize in Inclusion is a signature program of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which believes that inclusion and understanding of all people is essential to a fair and flourishing community.

Guidelines and a link to the application form for the awards are available on the foundation’s website, Submissions are due by Monday April 7, 2014 and the winners will be announced in June.

Good luck!

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Using Dance, Music And Theater To Foster A More Inclusive Environment

Elaine HallBy: Elaine Hall

(This is a continuation of a previous post- here is part one)

“A human being mints many coins from the same mold and they are all identical. But the Holy One, Blessed be G-d, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

Would we know of Aaron if Moses hadn’t spoken with a lisp? G-d knew to pair someone who could speak easily, with someone who had trouble being understood. Both became leaders. By pairing peers with and without disabilities together they discover each other’s unique gifts and thereby learn, grow and can ultimately lead together. In all of our classes at The Miracle Project Judaica, we use ‘reverse inclusion’- bringing typically developing peers into the creative workspace with individuals who have disabilities.

3. By using ‘reverse inclusion,’ – bringing peers into the creative workspace – everyone benefits. The arts enable participants to connect to each other in new ways that discourage isolation and build community. We pair Sarah – who only wants to sing alone and screams if anyone joins her – with Ellie, a non-disabled teen; slowly trust is created and gradually Sarah allows her to join her song. Over time, Sarah sings a duet with Ellie in a production, and the following year, Sarah is the first child with autism to participate in her Sunday school choir.

Reverse inclusion has many other benefits.

Kenny is known as being a bit of a bully at camp. He can eyeball the vulnerability in others and use it to bring them down. This year, he needs community service hours and thinks participating in a creative arts, theater camp will be an easy way to get all the hours he needs in one full week. He comes ready ‘to help’ but halfway interested. The first day in camp, he is partnered with James, a teenager with Down syndrome. Kenny is trained to follow James’ lead and he becomes increasingly moved by his new friend. Soon, Kenny decides to stay on through the rest of the year, and he is transformed into the protector of the vulnerable.

Sandra is a tough teen, the product of a divorced family, an absent father, and a single mom. Though she is doing well enough in her daytime studies; afterschool, she turns to the wrong crowd; she likes the ‘bad boy.’ Her best friend, Kaitlin, encourages her to join an Inspired Teen group which is a group of teens of all abilities who raise awareness, funds, and participate in The Miracle Project camps and classes.  Sandra connects with David and glides his wheelchair to dance with him. Soon, David pushes himself out of his wheelchair and moves his body – first as a crawl, then guided by Sandra, he uses his walker to get onto the stage.  Ryan Berman our theater director, decorates David’s walker as a Turntable for the production, giving David the character – DJ David.   In time, David is using his walker and dancing by himself on stage. Sandra, feeling like there is something she can offer the world, grows in self-esteem. She breaks up with the ‘bad boy’ and decides to apply for college with an emphasis in Theater and Special Education.

Group of individuals with and without disabilities performing together in the first The Miracle Project Judaica show, "Everyday Miracles" where a group of Hebrew school kids go back in time, led by the new kid, "Eli" and meet their namesakes. (Courtesy: The Miracle Project)

Group of individuals with and without disabilities performing together in the first The Miracle Project Judaica show, “Everyday Miracles” where a group of Hebrew school kids go back in time, led by the new kid, “Eli” and meet their namesakes. (Courtesy: The Miracle Project)

4.  Involve the entire family. Family interests are often split when there is a child with a disability.  One parent drives one child to dance class, Little League, or piano recital; while the other is taking the child with a disability to therapy.  Parents comment that an inclusive theater program is the one place where they can all participate.  Quinn loves to read from the Torah. He has perfect pitch; he also has autism. His sister does not share his ear for music, but she loves to write lyrics. Together they craft beautiful songs.  His Mom helps with the cast party.  Other parents build sets and make costumes.  Together a dynamic, creative community is born.

Siblings may sometimes feel scrutinized as if they have to be overly responsible ‘young adults’ when they have a brother or sister with a disability. Sadly, resentment can build up. Brian’s brother, Kalab, has Asperger’s, and to Brian, Kalab’s incessant repetitions are just ‘annoying.’ Brian connects with Stacey whose sister is non-verbal autistic. Together they share about their siblings’ challenges and when it is time to choose a character for the play, Brian chooses to play the role of a non-verbal autistic boy who types to communicate. He grows in compassion and understanding of his brother by being able to express his feelings, knowing that he is not alone, and also by witnessing how his brother is embraced by others in the class.

The arts are a great equalizer. By participating in shared creative experiences, positive relationships evolve. In our classes at The Miracle Project Judaica, peers work together to write an original Jewish play. Drawing on the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of all, we realize that we are not alone. Participants unite together to create a work of art. Parents are no longer isolated and focused on their child’s deficits – they experience joy. The audience becomes moved by the experience. Everyone is transformed as they learn: in the words typed by Jacob Artson, a long-time participant in The Miracle Project:

If you look long enough
Maybe you’ll see why
Everyone has a talent and they can learn to fly

If you look long and hard
You can see beyond the face
It doesn’t speak but it still feels
Everyone has a place –

To Fly.

Elaine Hall is an internationally renowned arts educator for her starring role in the HBO Emmy Award winning documentary, Autism: The Musical. Her groundbreaking Jewish musical theater and film program, The Miracle Project Judaica, has been named by the Slingshot Guide as one of North America’s best Jewish organizations to foster inclusion.  Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon, was selected reading by The United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day 2011 and for Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month 2013. Elaine is a motivational speaker seeking to change attitudes towards Inclusion through her religious and arts education programs, and through the I Win (Inclusion from Within) programs. Elaine lives in Santa Monica, California with her inspiration, her son Neal Katz diagnosed with autism at age three, and husband,  therapist, Jeff Frymer  - as she answers the call to bring The Miracle Project Judaica to communities nationwide. Connect with Elaine on Twitter or learn more on Facebook.

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Our Roots

JayRudermanBy:  Jay Ruderman

Our Foundation is pleased to debut its new logo today.

To our grantees and partners, the Ruderman Family Foundation strives to provide strength, roots, and vital resources for inclusion. In our new logo, the Foundation stands as the trunk of a tree, supporting the growth of connections and understanding among individuals, organizations and communities — the leaves — into a nuanced, thriving whole. Look closely and you’ll see that the tree trunk is also a helping hand; we are an active partner in this work.  Please note that our tree rises from the word “Family,” the source of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s own resilience.

RFF FINALTwo things stand out to me as I look at the tree:
1) A person who plants a tree may not be around to eat the fruit it bears but he plants it for future generations. Our goal is to provide the roots and base for inclusion and thereby create and help grow a fair and flourishing Jewish community. Our Foundation serves as the strong base helping to convene many groups from different walks of life to come together as one.

2)  “You are not required to finish the job but you are not free to sit idly by” (Chapter of the Fathers 2, 16).
From the outset, our Foundation has taken an active role in supporting, partnering and advocating for full inclusion. We firmly believe that our collective voice can affect change for future generations. Although we hope to see change take place very soon, we are aware that the road is long. But this challenge is not one we shy away from- we believe that the issues of fairness and social justice are the base and the roots of how we have survived and thrived.

A strong community is made up of everyone. A healthy community needs a strong base. A flourishing community needs roots to allow it to grow and thrive.

This is why we have chosen a tree- a strong and steady base that will bear fruit in the future.

Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Continue the inclusion conversation with Jay on Twitter.

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Let’s Make It So

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

The Union for Reform Judaism’s 2013 Biennial was, by far, the most accessible Biennial I have ever attended. I was pleased to note an intentional effort that included having a designated URJ staff member oversee the efforts from planning through to on-site accommodations, publicizing the efforts widely, training volunteers and significant signage to demonstrate accessibility. True leadership involves practicing what we preach and leading by example, so this Biennial was, in my opinion, a small leap in the right direction.

To further demonstrate the commitment to including those with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life, top members of the URJ staff spoke about inclusion and accessibility. From his address to the full convention, Rabbi Rick Jacobs stated, “And then there are Jews with disabilities, where we pay lip service to inclusion, but too often fail to take real action. Up to 20% of our population is living with some kind of disability at any given time…Inclusion is a lot more than changing physical structures and facilities. A ramp is just a sloped sidewalk if stigma and prejudice get in the way…And I’ll tell you something else: when we do, when we open our doors – and more, our hearts and minds – and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams. Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages – don’t look at the bottle, ela b’mah sheyesh bo, but at what is inside it. Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us.”

accessible biennialI am hopeful.  I hope that Rabbi Jacob’s words become a charge; a charge to do more than we are doing now, a charge to make real and lasting change.  I hope that the Union for Reform Judaism will continue to lead by example and support the efforts of those who work in and care deeply about congregational life.

The exciting announcement of a three-year partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation adds to my sense of optimism.  As leaders in philanthropy and advocacy for individuals with disabilities in Jewish life, RFF brings experience to a partnership which is intended to guide the 900 congregations in our movement ever closer to full inclusion.

I think we have reached a tipping point, finally, and that we have come to place where each and every one of us will be able to say, “Teach me how.” We are off to an amazing start.  Let’s make it so.

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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Affiliated- But Not Included

Lynne LandsbergBy: Rabbi Lynne Landsberg

The Pew Research Center’s recent study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” has rocked our Jewish boats.  According to Pew, our “affiliated” numbers are shrinking.  While we are looking for innovative ways to make Jewish life and Jewish living more attractive and attainable to our population, there is an opportunity to open our doors even wider and make a more robust effort to welcome and include Jews with disabilities (as well as their families).

The researchers at Pew asked important questions about Jewish self-identification and affiliation, as well as questions about child-rearing, attachment to Israel and remembering the Holocaust.  As a person with disabilities, I would have loved to have seen the folks at Pew delve more deeply.  I would have loved to see them ask questions like:

  • Can you even get into your synagogue building?
  • Are you able to read the synagogue’s prayer book?  Is it available in large print?  Do they have one in Braille?
  • Are you able to understand the teachings or the sermon through an interpreter or CART?  Do they have an assisted listening device?
  • Does the synagogue’s religious school offer special-ed accommodations?
  • Can your family member access the facilities inside the synagogue’s building?

Our sages teach, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  However, Jews with disabilities are too often separated from the community through no fault of their own.  If synagogue leadership could answer “yes” to the above questions, we could expand our reach in deep and important ways.  There are Jews out there who are “religious” and want to belong.

Maybe Pew could have asked a question like:  Do you want to be a part of synagogue life or a broader Jewish community, but feel turned away because of physical and attitudinal barriers? There are so many Jews with disabilities who remain unaffiliated because of inaccessibility but who do not want to remain unaffiliated.  These same people very well might self-identify as religious, but may not have a place to worship or participate in Jewish life. So by default they become unaffiliated.  The Pew study could have asked the same potential question another way:

Do you WANT to affiliate with a synagogue but feel like they don’t want you?

Some synagogues report that they are inclusive and cite a story or two about how a grandparent or guest at a bar mitzvah was able to enjoy their service.  But, as the saying goes, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”  When twenty percent of your stories include Jews with disabilities, I’ll consider your synagogue inclusive.

At some point down the line, Pew might consider expanding their segmentation for a study on this demographic.  They might want to target specific parts of the Jewish community – especially those with disabilities who are denied accessibility and inclusion in the Jewish community.  It would be interesting to see the numbers inverted – because no doubt, this is a population that has long been yearning to be an important part of synagogue life and the Jewish community.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Engage TheRAC on Twitter or follow them on Facebook.

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Including Everyone Together

William DaroffBy: William Daroff

Promoting independent living and community inclusion for people with disabilities is a central reflection of Jewish communal values. Our sages teach us, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5), and the tradition of bringing together Jews in the community from every background lives on in America today.

That is why many Federations have a long history of working to promote inclusion within their communities, and why The Jewish Federations of North America and the Ruderman Family Foundation recently announced a new opportunity for federations to employ people with disabilities and promote the concept of inclusion through providing people with meaningful employment opportunities.

But inclusion is about more than just providing an opportunity to work.  Inclusion is about every facet of Jewish life.  It’s about providing a continuum of services and settings appropriate to the needs of the individual, enabling them to benefit from and find satisfaction in his/her meaningful participation in the Jewish community.


Inclusion means ensuring everyone can access Jewish institutions in our communities and all of the activities held within them, and understanding that each one of us has a role to play so that all people are welcome and can participate in meaningful ways.  To accomplish this, we must make all possible efforts to adapt our programming and institutions to allow people with disabilities to actively participate, and ensure everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

Many Jewish communities observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month each February, which is a great opportunity for everyone to come together to promote inclusion, address the challenges the community faces, and celebrate the strengths of people with disabilities and the contributions they make to our communities.  But our commitment to these goals must extend beyond one month a year.  We must dedicate ourselves to an 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.

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.  This ethos is what drives the Federation movement to promote inclusion and move the broader Jewish community towards this important goal so that one day soon, we can celebrate an ever stronger sense of Jewish unity through diversity.

William Daroff is the Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. He is on twitter at @Daroff.

Read our last post: The Abysmal Truth About Abuse And Disabilities

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