February 19, 2020

Getting Disabilities to be a Jewish Issue: From the General Assemly

For many of us working on the issue of Jews and Special Needs in North America, it all too often feels like we are talking to ourselves. We gather in corners at kiddush, meet each other in doctor’s waiting rooms, even joyfully send our kids off for another great Tikvah session at Camp Ramah, but getting that discussion to break through to the next level of communal concerns is truly the challenge. How do we get our Jewish leaders, rabbis, educators and donors to turn this “niche” issue into part of the central discussion (and funding)?

At the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America meeting today at Denver, a crucial step towards achieving that next step took place. During a breakout session titled, “Anyone Can Be a Leader and Advocate: Promoting Disability Rights in the 21st Century”, I was very happy to hear that that we have the joint opportunity to turn the next Jewish Disability Awareness Month in Feb. 2012 into just this type of communal experience across North America.

Ari Ne’eman, a self-advocate and founder of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, urged us to include people with disabilities in all of our planning, programs and services. We should be “doing with”, not “doing for” he said, echoing the concerns of many people involved with Jewish special needs that all too often the person with disability becomes a means to the end—the object of a “mitzvah project” instead of being seen as a contributing member of the Jewish community.

“We have to believe in the capacity of every individual,” said Shelly Christensen, Consultant and CEO of Inclusion Innovations. She also talked about the need of “intentionality” on the part of syngagouges, federations and other Jewish groups, with standing committees on inclusion, and looking at the needs of the people first instead of their labels.

Pepi Dunay of the Jewish Federation of Broward County, FL, talked about their own family’s journey with her grandson and talked about the need for Jewish communities to put disability advocacy on their priority lists when they meet with local and state elected officials.

I was honored to be part of this group and shared our family’s journey with our son, Danny, which has been detailed in some of my earlier blog posts here, and urged the participants to find ways to fund programs for children and teens with special needs that didn’t necessitate the parents footing the bills for the necessary additional staff or shadows.

In keeping with the “cowboy” theme of holding the GA in Denver, I tip my hat to the Jewish Federations of North American for addressing this topic at the GA, and thank David T. Brown, the Chair of Domestic Affairs, for his commitment to this issue. And now if I can just get back to Los Angeles before the next snow storm….

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