Peoplehood and Disability

Jason LiebermanBy: Jason Lieberman

Jewish communal professionals’ and philanthropists’ recent focus on creating a sense of Jewish Peoplehood, or communal togetherness, has resulted in significant recourses and energy spent fighting overwhelming momentum toward denominational divisions and sectarianism.  However, often it seems like these efforts most closely resemble running on a treadmill, an activity in which one exerts energy yet goes nowhere, albeit with a higher heart rate.

Rather than continuing down this current unfruitful path, I suggest those interested in Peoplehood look in a different direction for inspiration – the disability community. In a world filled with labels, people with disabilities don’t have the luxury of hiding behind our differences; we must acknowledge them and move forward. Therefore, many with disabilities often bridge divides and defy labels in ways that are foreign to others, but common for us.

For example, people with autism spectrum disorders often have little in common with each other, much less with people with different diagnoses, like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. However, we’re often placed in the same program, classroom or living environment due to one similarity; we have conditions, which “substantially limit one or more of our major life activities,” or more simply put a disability.

Upon visiting most day programs, residences or camp programs for people with disabilities, one will find people, whose only similarities, if any, involve what we can’t do. Yet we still find ways to work, play and learn together, and thus, build a community that doesn’t ignore, but transcends, our differences.  This occurs not only with diagnostic labels, but denominationally as well.

Ramah is a pillar of the Conservative Movement.  Its mission states that it encourages people to “live committed Jewish lives, embodying the ideals of Conservative Judaism,” but in its Tikvah Program, for campers with developmental disabilities, those who don’t identify as Conservative Jews, also excel and feel comfortable. In fact, Howard Blas, the Director of Tikvah at Camp Ramah New England, says, 27% of that program’s campers last summer didn’t identify as Conservative, but enjoyed camp.

The individuals with disabilities themselves aren’t the only members of the disability community looking past labels and finding community and solutions. At its Family Shabbaton, NJCD/YACHAD, an agency of the Orthodox Union, provides an opportunity for families to come together, meet with experts and find support. Throughout the weekend, but particularly during Shabbat lunch, when families are assigned seats based on the challenges each face, it’s not uncommon for secular families and Hasidic families to sit together and discuss the challenges facing their respective families. In my experience, after these conversations, the families often exchange information and promise to stay in touch. They later marvel that under current social norms, in no other setting would they be in the same room, much less, talk to each other.

Family Shabbaton and Tikvah are just two of many examples where Jews with disabilities defy denominational labels. If people with disabilities can operate trans-denominationally, in these environments, then surely we can do so, in environments intentionally designed to foster community wide relationships.  If those interested in peoplehood give us the opportunity, I believe the disability community can demonstrate how to find opportunities to come together and build community despite existing differences, enabling the opportunities that exist for us, to reach all of Klal Yisroel.

Jason Lieberman, diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 11 months, is a disability advocate. Jason currently serves on the Board of Directors of   Matan and Bronx Independent Living Services. Additionally, He is the former Director of Government and Community Affairs for Yachad/NJCD and is an informal adviser to Tikvah at Camp Ramah New England.  Recently named one of The New York Jewish Week’s 36 under 36, he lives with his wife Emily and son Ruby in New York City.



Filed under perceptions of disability

2 responses to “Peoplehood and Disability

  1. Great blog! Several years ago, while in Northern Ireland, l earned that the only Catholic and Protestant children who attended the same school, were children with disabilities. Yes, let us take this valuable lesson from the disability community.

  2. I agree with your premise regarding disability groups working together; however, you ignore the fact that within the disability community there is a hierarchy. The deaf community is almost always on the vanguard when it comes to pushing disability rights forward, and the rest of the community follows. We have much to thank the deaf community for in terms of their advocacy.

    In terms of the diaspora Jewish community , the elephant in the room is that these so-called integrated programs that you point to still have segregation (e.g. Ramah has separate cabins for the kids with special needs). We have much to work to do the diaspora Jewish community in terms of true integration for every child with special needs whose parents desire complete successful inclusion. From my experience, the Jewish community is in the dark ages when it comes to this issue! Here are a few posts that may help anyone whose goal is 100% inclusion for their child.

    Successful Autism Integration: How it makes ALL kids better human beings

    Religiosity and Autism: Studying the Wrong Question

    How To Skate Around Discrimination

    Finding Religion to End Run Autism Education Discrimination

    I sure hope autism centers aren’t stealth segregation

    Autism and the Birthday Party: A Litmus Test

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