This post is part of #JDAMblogs, a series of blog posts throughout the Jewish community during the month of February in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). #JDAMblogs is the brainchild of Lisa Friedman, who blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block. You can participate by writing your own post and linking up with Lisa.
Recently, someone asked me how I became so interested and active in inclusion work. I commented that it had been a natural progression in my life. I began working with people with disabilities when I was 17, but the idea of b’tzelem Elohim, that we're all created in the image of God, had been ingrained in me from birth. My mother is a special education teacher, and my grandfather was both hearing and physically disabled. I never knew that people like my grandfather or the students in my mother’s classes were anything other than “normal.” I was taught to look beyond the surface and to see every person for who he or she is: simply a human being, created in God’s image.
Inclusivity is not a new topic in the Jewish community. In the earliest of times, when many ancient cultures were unaccepting of a baby born into the world with evident “imperfections,” ancient Jewish leaders were writing laws on how to best protect those with disabilities. And though the intent was good, these laws became a barrier for Jews with disabilities; these laws prevented Jews with disabilities from participating in certain rituals, thus preventing them from finding a place in the Jewish community, keeping them on the periphery for many generations.
One in five Jews has a disability. In other words, 20% of the Jewish population has some sort of cognitive or physical disability. With such a large percentage of the Jewish population living with disabilities, we must do more to open our doors and make our communities aware and inclusive. This month, February, is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Many congregations have begun hosting alternative programming, educational opportunities, and services for members of their communities with disabilities, but there are still many who have not yet found a way into the Jewish community. We have a long history, demonstrated through our texts, of people with disabilities achieving greatness. Moses, for example, who was “slow of tongue,” rose to be a great leader. His narrative is a shining example of how people with disabilities can not only achieve greatness, but can also make a huge difference in the Jewish community. Pirkei Avot 4:20 teaches us, “Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains.” There is no better lesson than this: See what lies beneath the surface. How can we start looking beneath the surface if we haven’t yet welcomed those with disabilities into our communities?
Jewish Disability Awareness Month is the perfect time to begin educating your community and begin incorporating inclusion and ability awareness into your communities. There are many ways to do this that will not be a financial burden to your congregations. Consider the following:
- Lower mezuzahs throughout the temple. Create a ritual that includes various groups from your community to share in this special and inclusive activity.
- Create space in the sanctuary for wheelchairs.
- Write a bulletin article about ability awareness and inclusion.
- Invite a sign language interpreter for a Shabbat service.
- Consider saying Kiddush sitting down so that those who cannot stand feel included.
- Focus on multi-sensory learning and prayer. Use technology in worship for those who might be blind, deaf, or unable to hold a prayer book.
- Provide a disabilities awareness training session for religious school teachers and synagogue lay leadership.
- Enlarge prayer book pages for those with vision impairments.
- Invite speakers and presenters to speak to your Hebrew school, lay leadership, and general community about disability issues.
- Plan an inclusion awareness Shabbat and invite kids and teens from local schools for children with disabilities to participate.
Additionally, consider reading, individually or as a whole community, this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month book, Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levy. Other great books to read as a community include The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding the Bus with My Sister. Consider utilizing Hineinu, an innovative guide put together by rabbis from across all denominations, which provides support and resources for how to create an inclusive community. Shelly Christensen’s Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities is also a great resource for those hoping to make their communities more inclusive.
Inclusion is an intentional process; let us begin that process now.
Cantor Faryn Rudnick is the cantor at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, IL, her first position after her ordination from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in May 2013. She was recently appointed to the Jewish Disabilities Network Coalition, serving as the representative from the American Conference of Cantors. Prior to her cantorial studies, she was a tenured public school band director in Oakland, NJ. Faryn was married in October 2013 to Jack Rudnick, and they live in Vernon Hills, IL.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.