February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), including ours, are proud to join The Jewish Special Education International Consortium and many other partners across the Jewish community in recognizing and increasing the awareness of the needs, strengths, opportunities and challenges of individuals with disabilities in our community, as well as ensuring our community is as inclusive of individuals with disabilities and their families as possible.
Just yesterday, the JFNA’s Washington Office, in cooperation with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism hosted “Jewish Disability Advocacy Day” on Capitol Hill. It was an opportunity for volunteer and professional leaders from Jewish communities across the country to go to Capitol Hill, hear educational briefings from leading analysts, and take the opportunity to meet with Members of Congress to advocate for relevant public policy issues.
We are proud that several Federation partner agencies and funded programs provide critical services to individuals and families with special needs. Here are just a few examples:
Jewish Family and Child Service has a wide-ranging program for individuals and families. TASK: Treasuring, Accepting, and Supporting Kehillah (Hebrew for community) promotes acceptance and inclusion in the Jewish Community of people with disabilities so that everyone has the opportunity to fully participate in the richness of Jewish educational, cultural and social life. TASK provides information and support for parents with children of all ages and all kinds of disabilities. JFCS provides individual consultations about disability resources, support groups, and information and referral networks. There are also workshops and training for parents, teachers and students to promote acceptance and inclusion of Jewish children and adults with disabilities.
Social and recreational activities happen several times each month for adults with any type of disability to come together. In addition, TASK provides support for religious school students with special needs in cooperation with local congregations for students in grades 1-12 who may benefit from additional support. TASK also provides teacher training on disabilities to local organizations and religious schools.
Kehillah Housing, Cedar Sinai Park’s newly completed (opened in September 2013) 14-unit apartment building for developmentally disabled adults, was done in partnership with JFCS. The space provides not only a “home” for these adults, it also provides communal space for JFCS’s TASK and Partners programs, groups and educational supports.
B’nai B’rith Camp has always welcomed all children regardless of their abilities or needs. Several years ago, however, the camp realized it was not serving all Jewish children. Those with special needs were not being served by the camp or any other Jewish camp in the Pacific Northwest.
To rectify this lack of programming for special needs campers, BB Camp developed its Kehila summer camp program in 2009, with an initial Impact Grant from the Jewish Federation. The Camp provides meaningful one week and three week Jewish camp experiences for children with special needs.
BB Camp follows a full inclusion model for the Kehila program, led by a trained Inclusion Specialist, who specializes in children with special needs. Kehila campers are fully integrated into cabins and activities. Each cabin has additional counselors, specifically working with the Kehila campers. These counselors are trained by the Inclusion Specialist, with the goal of providing increased supervision and support, as needed.
Krembo Wings is Israel’s sole youth movement for children with severe psychological, motor and cognitive disabilities, enabling them to enjoy a structured social environment with their able-bodied peers. These children, many of whom are autistic or have cerebral palsy, have no opportunity for social interaction outside of the formal education system and can’t participate in other youth groups because of their severe disabilities. In Karmiel (Central Galilee area), where many families struggle financially and the municipality lacks services and facilities for children with special needs, our Federation dollars have enabled Krembo Wings to launch a new regional branch, serving Jewish and Arab youth from the area.
There is a growing movement in the Jewish community to include Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life, driven by the desires of families with children of all ages, people with disabilities themselves, professionals, advocates and private philanthropy. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our inclusion efforts may not be going far enough.
Steven M. Eidelman, Professor at the University of Delaware and Faculty Director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities recently wrote:
Inclusion is part values and attitude, part law, part skillset and part funding. Values and attitudes are perhaps the most challenging thing to change of the four. To fully include people with disabilities, our communities must see them as valued participants. Not as recipients of Tzedek (justice), nor as part of Tikun Olam (healing the world), but as members of a community, valued for whatever contributions they make. All people have gifts and talents and have something to contribute to the strengthening of the Jewish community worldwide. Exclusion and segregation weaken our community and put families at risk of disengaging from their community.
I am proud of all our community has accomplished. But more work needs to be done. Nothing is more heartbreaking/frustrating than receiving a call about a special needs child wanting “Jewish enrichment” yet the family feels “pushed away” by our Jewish communal institutions.
Unfortunately, across the country many Jewish community professionals, educators and lay leaders are not trained in inclusive practices (JFCS can help). Additional inclusion training is needed. And then there is the need for additional funding. Creating programs can require new or redeployed staff, work to make facilities physically accessible and sometimes only training of existing employees.
All communities need a plan – and the Jewish Federation is prepared to convene local and national partners in developing a more comprehensive plan for our Jewish community. We need to know who are the people with disabilities, what are their needs and wants, and what are the challenges to including them in the mainstream fabric of Jewish communal life. This information is not always at our fingertips, but neither is it a huge challenge to get.
Think of what more our community could do to welcome ALL Jews.
Stay warm, be safe, enjoy the Winter Olympics (wouldn't it be great if they also showed the Paralympic Games on TV), and Shabbat shalom!