Tag Archives: Jewish community

JDAM 2015 Roundup

2015 Jewish Disability Awareness Month just finished- and what a month! Programs across North America, new initiatives announced, many many posts and articles and plenty of tweets on Twitter!

Below is a list of fifteen posts and articles we selected that discuss inclusion from numerous angles. They are not listed in any specific order. Please read them and spread them around.

Thank you to everyone who participated in #JDAM15 and who continues to work towards a fully inclusive Jewish community!

What I Learned Planning a Bat Mitzvah for my Daughter with Disabilities
A mother learns to let go of what we can’t control and embrace the true meaning of the experience. (Kveller)

In Baltimore and Atlanta, a Model for Jewish Community Disability Inclusion
The goal is to show the entire Jewish community that full inclusion is possible. (JNS)

Jewish Disability Awareness
Being Jewish and having a disability means it’s harder to be accepted into the community. A first-person account. (Jerusalem Post)

Five Ways to be an Ally to People with Disabilities
Listen, educate yourself, advocate and more. (URJ)

Inclusion is Great. Now what?
There’s always  more that can be done- steps to making our community more inclusive. (New Normal)

Accessibility Building Blocks to Remove Stumbling Blocks
Tech must be accessible to all! Dana Marlowe, an accessibility expert, looks at the need to ensure that everyone has access to tech and Judaism’s perspective on the issue. (eJewish Philanthropy)

Disabled Does not mean Not Abled
A younger brother looks at his older brother’s journey in the Jewish community and which organizations helped him along the way. (New Voices)

In it Together
Talk to your kids and discuss inclusion with them. (JKid Philly)

What if you Can’t Swim?
A look at mikveh (ritual immersion) and people who have a disability. (Mayyim Hayyim)

My Son has Fragile X Syndrome- and a Surprising Connection to Prayer
Beautiful post by Rabbi Ilana Garber about her son and why we should be grateful for all our blessings, every day. (Kveller)

2015 JDAM logo

Let’s Get Started!
Getting started on the track towards inclusion in your community. (Matan Inc.)

Remove the Stumbling Block of Economic Inequality
There are economic hardships that are unique to people with disabilities across America. (The RAC)

Israeli Cops to Walk with Children with Disabilities in Marathon
Wonderful story about Israeli police officers learning to work hand-in-hand with kids with disabilities- and learning a valuable lesson along the way. (JNS)

Opening the Gates of Torah
A first-person account of living with autism. (USCJ)

The Collateral Good Cannot be Overstated
Fantastic post about how Temple Beth Torah became fully inclusive. (URJ)

And on our blog:

Inclusion of Biblical Proportions
The case of Moses is an example par excellence of what can happen when a person is appropriately facilitated and included.

The Favorite Student
Benji became Sam’s favorite bar mitzva student by demonstrating that everyone has ability. They just need someone to help them bring it forth.

I Am Dyslexic
A bar mitzvah boy embraces his dyslexia and sets to help others reach their full potential.


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Jewish Self-Advocacy Education

(credit: Rachel Moses)

(credit: Rachel Moses)

By: Rachel Delman Turniansky

Rabbi Hillel asked: If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” – Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:13)

Wrightslaw gives the following definition of self-advocacy:

“… learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship and learning about self-determination.”

There are times when well-intentioned professionals and family members have a dominating voice when it comes to decisions that impact the lives of people with disabilities (PWD), as opposed to allowing them to self-advocate. I feel that thee Jewish community needs to support the development of self-advocacy and leadership skills in a Jewish context. The need for self-advocacy education that includes Jewish middot (values) is significant. Jewish life centers around family and community connections. People with disabilities are often left on the sidelines when it comes to participating in Jewish life.

A Jewish self-advocacy training program is being piloted through Baltimore’s TAG program. TAG is a division of Gesher LaTorah, a community-based Jewish education program for students with disabilities facilitated by the Macks Center for Jewish Education. TAG stands for Torah, Avodah v’Gimilut Chassadim – Torah learning, prayer and acts of loving kindness. Self-advocacy through a Jewish lens starts with cheshbon hanefesh (self-reflection). In thinking about Hillel’s wise words, we need to first think about who we are and how we want to fit into the Jewish world. TAG participants develop their Jewish identity and build connection to the community. They work on improving communication skills and goal-setting as well as how to voice their needs in a variety of situations. Students learn how to navigate the world using the Jewish values emulated by the name of the TAG program, along with others such as kavod – respect, derech eretz – showing good manners and being a “mensch”, and b’tzelem E’lokim – people are created in God’s image. Growing as a person and as a Jew is an important step towards advocating for acceptance.

Benyamin Waldman, Nechemya Jakobovitz and Mordechai Cohen enjoy learning and laughing together at Gesher LaTorah.

Benyamin Waldman, Nechemya Jakobovitz and Mordechai Cohen enjoy learning and laughing together at Gesher LaTorah.

Exploring the Jewish community and learning how to interact with others are also components. Students spend time discussing various aspects of what it means to be a member of the Jewish community and ways to strengthen their relationships with others. Through hands-on learning, role playing and multimedia experiences, students embrace v’ahavta l’reyecha k’mocha – love your neighbor as yourself and rodef shalom – pursue peace, while learning to interact in a variety of situations. Developing social skills and leadership qualities leads to building confidence and independence.

Many Jewish communal agencies are fortunate to have programming, support and advocacy for people with disabilities. It’s time for these Jewish professionals to understand that true support must be with the PWD. To echo the message of many disability advocacy groups, an important component to this effort is embodied in the phrase: “Nothing About Us Without Us.” With the proper tools and support, PWD can explore their own strengths and challenges and become self-advocates. People with disabilities are the primary stakeholders in creating a culture of inclusion throughout the Jewish community. As self-advocates, people with disabilities can join with advisors and allies to lend their voice to the endeavor to ensure their rightful place as members of our kehillah – community.

Rachel Delman Turniansky is the Coordinator of Special Needs Programs at the Center for Jewish Education and Principal of Gesher LaTorah. The TAG – Torah, Avodah, v’Gimilut Chasadim program is the adult Jewish education program under the auspices of Gesher LaTorah. Through the support of the #MakeItHappen grant (a joint partnership of the Schusterman and Ruderman Family Foundations) TAG implemented a Jewish Self-Advocacy Program in which students are developing self-awareness, leadership and Jewish identity. Learn more about Gesher LaTorah by Liking them on Facebook.

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Setting The Agenda

At the recent JFNA GA, Jay Ruderman sat down with JNS Editor in Chief Jacob Kamaras to discuss inclusion, philanthropy, the Israel-U.S. Jewry relationship and more. Below is part two of that interview. Part one can be found here.

Most observers focus on the U.S.-Israel relationship from the perspective of the two governments aside. But what don’t the broader Israeli and American civilian populations understand about each other?

“If people know about our work, they probably know about the issue of disabilities and inclusion, in Israel and the United States. However, I’ve been living in Israel for eight years, and through my experience at AIPAC and my experience on my own meeting political figures, ministers, Members of Knesset, I came to the realization that when I would speak to them about the American Jewish population and how important the population is, to Israel and Israel’s security, they didn’t really understand the community I was talking about, and they frankly didn’t really care. Israel is a very self-focused society and they care about things that happen in Israel, and there are things happening in Israel every single moment. But this community here, the American Jewish community, they don’t really understand all that well. Anyone who has spent time in both countries realizes that they’re completely different societies. In Israel, there’s no separation between church and state, there’s a Rabbanut. The Reform and Conservative movements, and other ways of connecting to Judaism, they’re represented but they’re not widespread throughout society. So what we’ve begun to do [at the foundation] is educate Israeli leaders. We’ve been bringing Knesset members to the United States, bringing journalists, and talking to them about the American Jewish community—the pluralism of the community, how there are all different ways of observance, synagogue life, and the younger generations of the Americans and how their connection to Israel may be changing. Because the work that the Jewish community has done with the American government to ensure support of Israel is critical, in my opinion, for Israel’s survival. If younger Jews are not connected in the same way, that’s a security issue for Israel, and Israelis by and large are not focused on that issue.”

Jay Ruderman interview

What are the most important current trends in philanthropy, and how should the Jewish community adapt?

“I’m not sure the old model of giving to a centralized organization to support the community is going to be that popular moving forward. I think people are looking for a more entrepreneurial entrance to philanthropy and looking to sort of control the way their giving is done and see the impact, and be more hands-on. We work very well with [Jewish] federations. We have major partnerships in Boston on the issue of inclusion in Jewish day schools, on employing young people with disabilities, on making our synagogues more inclusive. We have a major partnership with JFNA in placing interns, people with disabilities in federations around North America. I still believe that I represent a family that has four individuals. I don’t represent the entire Jewish community. So if I want to work on the issues that are important to us, then we have to connect with the Jewish community, and right now federations hold that position. However, I think that federations have to build these partnerships with foundations. And one of the things, quite frankly, that we should put on the table is that significant wealth and philanthropy, people who are billionaires and multi-billionaires, are going to be setting the agenda of the Jewish community. And my personal belief is that they have an obligation to be public about what they’re doing, to explain what they’re doing, and to find a way to connect to the community.”

The interview was originally posted by JNS.

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Let’s Build A More Inclusive Community

At the recent JFNA GA, Jay Ruderman sat down with JNS Editor in Chief Jacob Kamaras to discuss inclusion, philanthropy, the Israel-U.S. Jewry relationship and more. Below is part one of that interview.

The Ruderman Family Foundation is known for its work to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities, but at the 2014 General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the foundation’s president used the concept of inclusion to issue a broader challenge to the Jewish community.

“I think that we look at people and we label them very quickly,” Jay Ruderman told me Nov. 11 on the stage of the GA’s “press pit,” a section of the exhibition hall where conference attendees got the chance to listen to journalists interview various Jewish leaders. “[We’ll say] ‘You’re in a wheelchair,’ or ‘you’re a different color,’ or ‘you have a different orientation.’ And that’s not what we should be about. We should be about saying, ‘Okay. You’re Jewish. You identify Jewishly, and we’re all in this together, and let’s figure out how to build a big tent.’”

In addition to disability issues, the Ruderman Family Foundation—which has offices in Boston and Israel—prioritizes fostering a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israelis and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide. The following is a condensed version of my interview with Jay Ruderman at the GA.

What would you fix about the Jewish community?

“Most Jewish philanthropy is given Jewishly. Jewish organizations are mainly focused on ensuring continuity. So if you’re looking at Jewish day schools, or Jewish camping, or trips to Israel, it’s all about the same thing: How do we engage younger Jews to be connected to our Jewish community? Which makes sense, and that’s a laudable goal. But what we’re not doing a good job at is including people on the fringes of our society—people with disabilities, the gay and lesbian community, intermarried families, Jews living in poverty. There are all sorts of groups that are excluded from our community. First of all, I don’t think that that’s a great value system for the Jewish community. But furthermore, young Americans already live in a more inclusive society, and if you build a Jewish community that looks like a country club that excludes a bunch of people, I think you’re going to turn off the very people that you’re trying to attract. So [our foundation is] out there talking to fellow philanthropists, talking to Jewish organizations, [saying] ‘Let’s build a more inclusive community that represents Jewish values of fairness, and in the process going to build a community that’s more attractive to younger generations.”

Jay Ruderman interview

During the controversy surrounding the recent report about a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a chickenshit, your foundation instead focused on another insult of Netanyahu mentioned in the same report—“Aspergery, derived from Asperger syndrome. What does this usage of a disability insult teach us about the power of language?

“First of all, our point when this whole story came out is based on the premise that it’s true, that someone said it. I believe someone said it, I don’t believe Jeffrey Goldberg would have written it if someone hadn’t said it. I don’t know who said it. In any case, the point is that people can’t use terms of disability in a derogatory manner. And we do it all the time. When I read the [Atlantic magazine] article, it jumped out at me. Like what is this? Aspergery? How could you use a disability that millions of people live with and try to put someone down that way? But we do it all the time when we talk to people. [We say] ‘What are you blind?’ ‘Are you deaf?’ And you hear this all the time. It’s not correct. There’s been a huge campaign that’s been going on for years not to use the word ‘retarded.’ And that’s been a successful campaign. And especially younger people in our society, they know that these terms are not okay, it’s not cool to talk that way. So that was our point [in responding to the ‘Aspergery’ insult]. Obviously the disability community picked up on it, and I have to give credit to the Jewish community, they also picked up on it.”

The interview was originally posted by JNS.

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You Had Me At Hello

Shelley CohenBy: Shelley Cohen


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.

CommunityMy 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.

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Community Needs

Stacy LevitanBy: Stacy Levitan

I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the first Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, held at the Pearlstone Center outside Baltimore, Maryland.  The gathering included about 30 professionals and lay leaders from Jewish agencies, and advocates with disabilities from around the country — even one attendee from Toronto!

We spent four intensive days together, learning about providing education and supports for people with disabilities, to help them live and learn in an integrated way into the community.  We also discussed the intersection of Jewish values with our work and why Judaism requires the inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of our lives. Our faculty were leaders in setting policy regarding the inclusion of those with disabilities in the community in general and specifically in the Jewish community.  Our faculty also included advocates with disabilities who were able to lend their perspective to what we were learning.  Finally, throughout the institute, faculty specializing in leadership guided us through exercises to hone our skills and make us more effective in our work.

Our days were a unique combination of lectures, thought-provoking exercises, delicious kosher meals with produce provided by the on-site farm, and some fun activities designed to help the attendees get to know each other. Our charge now is to go back to our communities, help others learn what we have learned, and look at our agencies to determine innovative ways to increase inclusion in the community.

Chanuka at Institute

Celebrating Hanukka during the Institute

So, what did we learn?  We saw many examples showing that:

1)     People with disabilities with the right supports can be included in the community in their housing, their jobs, their schools, and their social activities.  We were encouraged to look at each person with disabilities and in turn, encourage them to try to be included in the community in as many ways as possible.

2)     Our community needs to act like a community and help people with disabilities and their families to provide these supports.  In education, this means including people with disabilities in Jewish day schools and in adult-life, the community needs to help families and the individual plan for when they will live without dependence on their parents.

3)     The Jewish community needs to examine how to offer true support to allow people with disabilities to take part in Jewish religious life.  Synagogues must think about how they can include their members with disabilities, as well as look outside their membership and encourage people with disabilities – and their families — to come back to the religion in which they were raised.

Following a program like this, I could not help but be inspired by the dedication of the people who attended with me.  Our community is fortunate to have such a group of people who are working every day to help those with disabilities be included in our community and have us benefit from their inclusion.  For the greatest take-away from this week is what we all have known:  people with disabilities have as much to offer our community as we have to offer them.  We will all suffer if we prevent ourselves from living fully with these members of our community.  The Jewish community should never be seen as turning away those who want to live productive Jewish lives. We all need to work together to allow people with disabilities full inclusion in Judaism and the community in general.

Stacy Jarett Levitan is Executive Director of JCHAI – Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence — an agency selected for the Slingshot Guide Supplement on Disabilities and Inclusion.  JCHAI is in the Philadelphia area, providing supports to enable adults and young adults with intellectual disabilities and autism to live integrated in the community.  She can be reached at stacylevitan@jchai.org or 610-667-7875. Follow JCHAI on Twitter or learn more about them on Facebook.

Read our last post: My Mother’s Guardian Angel
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Our Inclusion Journey Is Just Beginning

Alan GillBy: Alan Gill

Meet Rachel and Dana.

These Israeli women, both in their late twenties, experienced a life passage recently that for many occurs at a much earlier age: they signed leases to move into their first apartments all on their own.

The twist?

Rachel and Dana both have severe physical disabilities that at one time might have consigned them for life to state institutions. But today, that is not their destiny.

Why? Because they were part of an innovative program that helps young Israeli adults with disabilities make the transition from institutions or from their parents homes to the larger community.

This achievement, a pinnacle in their lives, represents a tipping point of sorts, one I have seen throughout my travels around the world.

That’s because there is something extraordinary happening in Jewish communities and in Israel, something that demonstrates a real forward movement in how we embrace and create more inclusive communities for people with disabilities. And Rachel and Dana are just two examples of that change.

At the center – indeed the very heart– of this global transformation is the fact that inclusion is not just an easily tossed-about catchphrase in Jewish community life anymore. Today it is the driver.

For years now, we have talked about the importance of including Jews with disabilities in Jewish life or of helping people with disabilities live independently. In many ways these critically important slogans were the first step in achieving what is now a reality. But often we would stop short there, not doing enough to turn those words into action.

Today, however, we’re taking huge steps to ensure that Jewish life is available to all who seek it, creating opportunities for those who had faced barriers in the past, and providing unimpeded access to services and success and independence for people with disabilities. And in the process, we’ve begun to share and scale these models to create a “new normal” for our community.

So how did we get here?

In my opinion, by actualizing and bridging two great ideas: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” often attributed to Gandhi, and Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We have been blessed as a community to have standout leaders and activists who have pushed the envelope for the inclusion of people with disabilities across the global Jewish world. These advocates have embodied the very change they feel so passionately about.

Whether they themselves have a disability, have a friend or family member who has been impacted by a disability, or have been transformed by seeing the success achieved by a person with a disability when they are given the tools to thrive, these leaders are putting their professional reputations, philanthropic support, and personal talents where their mouths are. And to their credit they have not backed down.

Alan Gill (JDC)

I understand full well how that kind of passion and vision can impact organizations and communities. Since 2009, my organization JDC – together with our partners the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Government of Israel – has been working to ensure that Israel’s million plus citizens with disabilities have access to services, live independently, and that Israeli society becomes increasingly more inclusive of them.

We call this effort Israel Unlimited and to date, it has helped tens of thousands of Israelis with disabilities. Such transformative impact is the result of the leadership of my friend Jay Ruderman.

He has personified his passion, shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and his home in Israel to not just advocate for his vision of inclusion, but to fund life-changing initiatives, to award Jewish organizations and outlets that outshine with their achievements in this realm, and to push new models and ideas about inclusion, whether it be in the areas of employment or Jewish schooling.

And Jay is not alone. From the disabled director of a Center for Independent Living in Beersheva, a kindergarten teacher in Moscow bucking cultural fear of people with disabilities, or the rabbi of a suburban NJ synagogue welcoming families with children with disabilities into his congregation, these community members, and leaders in their own right, are boldly challenging the status quo – or simple ignorance – to ensure that people with disabilities are given their fair shot at the Jewish experience. They are the very change they desire in their communities.

When you have those kinds of inspiring leadership models, what follows next is action that changes lives. It wasn’t just enough, in JDC’s case, to walk the walk of inclusion. By embracing the change we wanted to make in lives of Israel’s citizens with disabilities and by then building out programs for them based on research, testing, and a better understanding of the services and opportunities they were lacking, we willed into being the very initiatives that would move the needle.

But we also did something else: we dreamed. For years now we have been running successful employment programs for an array of populations in Israel, most notably Haredim and Israeli Arabs. And we knew that Israelis with disabilities faced similar obstacles to the workforce – cultural misunderstanding of their abilities, lack of skills and training, and apprehension by employers.

We also knew from our previous successes that these obstacles were not true barriers if we marshaled resources and worked with our partners to ensure Israelis with disabilities had opportunities to work and thrive.

So just this summer, we launched RampUp, a program that trains pre-existing employment center staff to offer assistance and services to people with disabilities. Additionally, we included a variety of employers in RampUp’s roll-out, thereby creating a welcoming corporate culture for people with disabilities so that they are welcomed into the workforce and recognized for their skills and talents. With our initiative, Israelis with disabilities in five pilot cities in Northern Israel dream no longer about holding a job and living a life full of choice and dignity.

These achievements are about more than simple, pioneering efforts in the Jewish community to build inclusive, welcoming environments. They are about what is possible when you have the determination, unbridled passion, and tide of history on your side. You can make anything happen. And we have.

So let’s recommit to this task we have set forth for ourselves, whether we be Jewish professionals, philanthropists, or everyday community members. After all, our work is about strengthening Jewish people. And our shared dedication is to ensuring that people with disabilities – especially those in our global Jewish community – are right beside us and, in some cases, leading the way.

Together, with one voice, and many actions, we’re making it so. And future generations – like Rachel and Dana – will thank us.

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). JDC works in more more than 70 countries and Israel to rescue Jews in danger, alleviate hunger and hardship, innovate Jewish life and create lasting Jewish connections, and provide a Jewish response to natural and man-made disasters. Follow them on Twitter for more info.

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