Fighting to Include the Disabled in New York City

The Jewish Week has a terrific article by Jeffrey Yablonka about the challenges facing disabled members of the Jewish community in New York. The piece looks at the difficulties in observant Jewish communities, and goes into some detail on the gradual, fundamental shift in Jewish attitudes towards disabilities, from the time of the Torah to today.

Yablonka details the experience of several people either living with or caring for someone with disabilities, including Sharon Shapiro-Lacks. Shapiro-Lacks is the founder and director of Yad HaChazakah, the first Orthodox Jewish organization to be operated by Jews with disabilities. Like Yoav Kraiem, she wants neither pity nor charity; rather it is inclusion and involvement that she and her organization are fighting for.

It is not an easy fight; while progress is slowly being made, many institutions are resistant or even hostile to the cause of disabilities advocacy.

            Jodi Samuels became a cause célèbre last year when a prominent Orthodox day school in Manhattan refused to consider admitting her Down syndrome daughter Caily — even denying her an interview, despite the fact that Samuels had two other children enrolled in the school. When she went public with her story, Samuels says a board member of the school threatened her. Her community ostracized her, she says, with many withdrawing funding for the nonprofit she founded.

The experience Jodi Samuels and others with children with disabilities still have in the observant Jewish community in New York City inspired Rabbi Laurie Katz Braun. She has launched a new initiative called Let My People In, with the goal of emulating Boston’s Day School Initiative, a $45 million partnership which enables children with disabilities to attend Jewish day schools, of which the Ruderman Family Foundation is proud to be a part.

The piece is an excellent summary of the progress that Jewish disabilities advocacy has made at changing attitudes and actions within the community. It also illustrates how much remains to be done, in New York and elsewhere.

We wish Let My People In the best of luck.

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