By: Dori Kirshner
I read recently about a young man with Asperger’s employed at a large, upstate New York grocery store, who was berated for the (not-fast-enough) pace at which he was checking someone out at the register. The young man’s sister took to social media to ask people to give Chris a “shout out.” She pleaded, “If Chris has ever brightened your day, please “like” this page.” In a matter of hours, 20,000 people responded in support of this young man. I’m not someone who gets emotional reading Facebook posts, but reflecting on what happened in the wake of the unhappy customer’s treatment of the employee took my breath away. Essentially, advocating for Chris did not just rest on his family’s shoulders – all who saw/read/heard about it were compelled to stand with him and his family. It was a moment that reminded me of a sit-in, a March for social justice from the 60’s. I was proud to be part of that online community that day.
Literally, within hours of that national news story, an announcement of historic proportions was made: the various movements/streams of Judaism were banding together to attempt to move the community forward in order to increase disability inclusion in our synagogues for people of all abilities.
Press releases explained that the Hineinu Initiative, which literally means “we are here, ” will “help us make our synagogues more inclusive so that people of all abilities can say ‘I am here.’”
I read the announcement differently. What I envisioned was (finally!) a statement that “we, the people of the Jewish community, are here.” We cannot and should not function without all of our members. We are not whole if we are not fully represented. Essentially, it is not acceptable that those with disabilities or those who love people with disabilities are their only advocates. Hineinu – we are ALL here, supporting ALL of our members. I was proud to be part of the Jewish community that day.
Today, I read with excitement the Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative, and again, I found myself getting emotional. This effort “to place young adults with disabilities in internships and fellowships at five Federations across the country, as well as in JFNA’s Washington office,” is precisely the model that our Jewish community deserves.
At Matan, we are often asked what we consider to be the greatest barrier to inclusion in Jewish education. For years, our answer was “attitude.” The main barrier was an unwillingness among many Jewish institutions to do things differently, to think differently, to be okay with the idea that not everyone can or should be expected to learn in the same way. Through the advocacy efforts of Matan and other organizations, we can now proudly say that attitudes have changed: we now very rarely encounter Jewish leaders who truly do not want to include. The biggest barrier these days is “taking the leap” and having successful models to turn to for what community looks like when we include each member. Indeed, we can proudly stand together and see ourselves in our Jewish federations – and know that every Jewish individual is a crucial part of our whole.
Dori Frumin Kirshner is the Executive Director of Matan, a non-profit organization that advocates for Jewish children with disabilities, empowers their families, and educates Jewish leaders, teachers and communities so that all Jewish children have access to a rich and meaningful Jewish education. Follow their blog, Like Matan on Facebook or engage them on Twitter.