Jay Sanderson visited Vista Del Mar’s Ness Gadol Shabbat services last week, and it was a personal as well as communal inspiration for him to see kids and young adults with autism and other disabilities lead prayers for the wider community.
Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has a brother who is severely mentally disabled, and his son has serious learning disabilities. So he knows what it’s like to grow up in a family isolated from the Jewish community because of differences, he said.
“These families want a Jewish experience, they want their kids to get bar mitzvahed. And these kids were singing and praying and want to be part of the Jewish community. It’s very powerful,” Sanderson said of Ness Gadol, which Federation partially funds.
February is national Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month (JDAM), and Sanderson wants to see the events scheduled throughout the month raise consciousness in the Jewish community.
The Jewish Federations of North America has published a resource guide for communities to increase awareness, funding and inclusion for those with disabilities, and Jewish organizations across the country are focusing programming on disabilities this month.
The L.A. Jewish Federation, which is calling February Inclusion Awareness Month (I.A.M.), lists events on nearly every day of February on its I.A.M. Web site. Events are sponsored by organizations such as the Friendship Circle, Etta Israel, Hand in Hand, Jewish Family Service (JFS), Jewish Community Centers and various synagogues. Sanderson said Federation convened the organizations to encourage them to create events for I.A.M. or to move scheduled events to February. Federation also created some of its own programming.
Federation’s Super Sunday, Feb. 12, will feature community service events oriented around special needs, many of them offering opportunities for individuals with disabilities to volunteer alongside others.
On Feb. 17, rabbis across the city will dedicate their sermons to inclusivity.
The month culminates with Better Together on Feb. 29, an evening conference at the American Jewish University for professionals and volunteers who work with individuals with disabilities. Better Together is sponsored by Federation, along with JFS/HaMercaz, Builders of Jewish Education and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
Sanderson said inclusion was identified as a priority when Federation canvassed the community when he took over as president two years ago.
“We’re intensifying our efforts on every level in terms of funding, programming and partnering with these organizations working in the area of special needs,” Sanderson said. “We’re moving more resources into this area than we ever have.” But he added that Federation is not yet doing enough.
“The community is far better today than it was 10 years ago … but we have a lot of work to do,” Sanderson said.
For more on Inclusion Awareness Month, visit