As a teacher of Jewish Studies and b’nai mitzvah training children with a wide range of disabilities, and as a long time director of a disabilities program which is part of an 800+ camper Jewish overnight camp, I am immersed in the Jewish disabilities world and am part of dozens of year round conversations, conferences and panel discussions on various aspects of inclusion. I would like to share three exciting trends in the disabilities/inclusion world that I have noticed:
Increased Awareness and Discussion: Articles and videos showing people with disabilities in a positive light are everywhere—from USA Today to all over Facebook including soldiers with disabilities serving in the Israel Defense Forces, an Indiana University graduation speaker who happened to have disabilities, and a prom sensitive to people with disabilities. Synagogues are increasingly becoming aware of the needs of members with disabilities and of the fact that inclusion just makes good sense. Many Jewish institutions hosted disability awareness Shabbats this year as part of their process of becoming more inclusive. And I have to admit—I was delighted to follow the animated discussion in the New York Jewish Week’s New Normal blog about the soon-to-open Shefa School in Manhattan—and the question of just how inclusive or “separate” it is. It is wonderful when parents, professionals, and community leaders—many not directly impacted by disabilities—are joining the discussion about what a Jewish day school serving children with disabilities should look like.
Increased Collaboration, Sharing and Programming: We are coming out of our silos and increasingly working together. This may have started several years ago with the post-GA “Opening Abraham’s Tent: Jewish Disability Inclusion Initiative,” which was inspired in part by a visit to a number of disabilities camping programs by members of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). This year, “Hineinu: Jewish Community for People of All Abilities,” a cross denominational partnership for inclusion was announced. The National Ramah Tikvah Network included members of other camping movements in its two national disabilities training programs this year, and Ramah partnered with the 92nd Street Y (in New York City) to offer two holiday programs. In Boston, there is a great deal of collaboration between Yachad, Jewish Gateways and Camp Ramah in New England’s disability professionals and program participants.
In New York City, the UJA-Federation Task Force on People with Disabilities celebrates 18 years of bringing together professionals from various parts of the New York-area Jewish disabilities world, seven or eight times a year. FJC recently hired a director for their disabilities initiative and featured sessions at their recent Leaders Assembly on inclusion camping and vocational training programs (disclaimer: I led the latter session). We are talking to each other, attending the same conferences and sharing resources. As we prepare for our upcoming summer camp sessions, we are sharing staff training materials—across movements—and many of us are hoping to visit each other’s camps.
Increased Funding: The ADVANCE conference over the past few years, sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF) and organized by the Jewish Funders Network, brought together funders and professionals to share best practices. Funders are becoming increasingly aware of trends, programs and needs in the disabilities world—and they are talking to each other and learning how their effectiveness and impact increases when they work together around such issues as Jewish education and social programming, vocational training, housing, and more.
Several foundations have recently made important statements about the importance of funding in areas of inclusion of people with disabilities. The inaugural Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion was recently awarded to Dr. Michael Stein, a trailblazer in the disabilities field and Slingshot, thanks to the support of RFF, recently published the Disabilities and Inclusion Supplement, which singled out eighteen programs making a difference in the disabilities field.
Additionally, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore, Maryland has provided generous support for the vocational education program at Camp Ramah in New England and has allowed us to take our job training program to new heights. And I am personally indebted to the Covenant Foundation for selecting me, a professional in the Jewish disabilities world, as one of three recipients of last year’s Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Yet, with all of these positive developments, our work is not finished. I continue to receive calls each week from parents of children with disabilities who have yet to find a summer camp, or day school, or gap year program or Israel trip for their child. Let this be a summer of reflecting on our successes and moving forward to continue working together to create a more inclusive world.
Howard Blas is the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and a consultant on disabilities camping programs for the National Ramah Commission. Howard also teaches children with a wide range of disabilities for bar and bat mitzvah. Howard recently received the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.