What a significant little word. I have been saying hi to this young woman for the past couple of months and last week she answered back. I was elated. And no, I’m not a guy who’s been waiting for a girl to notice me. I’m a neuro typical person trying to interact in a typical way with a young woman who has some type of intellectual disability that causes her to not look people in the eyes and to feel painfully shy.
Last week, after months of being together in the same spin class at my local JCC, she finally answered me back and today I introduced myself formally and then in reply, she triumphantly told me her name is Sue followed by a huge smile. It was clearly a breakthrough moment for us both and I began to think about what a wonderful job my local JCC does in helping to create an inclusive environment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
You see my JCC has a program called Adaptations that provides young people with various disabilities with social and vocational support and opportunities. On any given day these young people can be found taking part in any and all activities in our JCC. I personally am an avid gym rat who takes various exercise classes at the JCC. In my dance aerobics class there is “Lilly” who has a mild case of CP and some type of intellectual disability. In order to keep up with the class moves, “Lilly” likes to sing along with the music that plays. At times she can be a bit off key but nobody seems to mind; instead the instructor and/or classmates will say “hey Lilly why aren’t you singing? Don’t you know this tune?” In another spin class I take there is a woman who is blind and even if one enters the darkened room (that is the MO of a spin class) nobody stares or thinks twice about the seeing eye dog splayed out at her owner’s feet. On Fridays I am greeted in the lobby by David who has Aspergers Syndrome as he busily sells Challahs, and candles for Shabbat.
My JCC has lectures, movies and programming for all ages and interspersed throughout these activities one can always find persons with varying degrees of some type of disability. I don’t know if my JCC is different than other JCCs. I hope it isn’t and if it is, I hope the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA), the umbrella organizations for all JCCs, will look to it as a best practice model to emulate.
This is how a Jewish community should function. It should be this way in all of our institutions – our synagogues, day schools and camps. Everyone having a place, feeling comfortable and being able to participate at whatever level they can. So that Sue who has difficult social interactions feels comfortable in our day schools and has teachers trained with the knowledge of how to teach to students with disabilities, and Lilly can pray loudly and off key at her synagogue having been taught the Hebrew prayers and singing them in her own way without stares and outward manifestations of unease. Just people interacting and sharing a common sense of belonging.
Inclusion of people with disabilities into the Jewish community needs to be a priority and nurtured within all of our institutions and yes, sometimes it begins with just a simple hello.
Shelley Richman Cohen is the Founder and Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, which educates rabbinical students, Rabbis and communal leaders on the obligation, need and methodology for leading the creation of more inclusive synagogues, schools, summer camps and community organizations that fully embrace the communal, social and religious needs of people with disabilities and their families. The Jewish Inclusion Project is funded in part by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation.