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.”
I 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.