Advice from Jewish Family Service’s Linda Burger
Rockville, Md., July 26 – Channeling her humble demeanor and the Jewish values she was raised with, Linda Burger has grown to be a leading ambassador for disability in the Jewish community of Houston, Texas. Burger believes in the Jewish thought that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim (In God’s Image) and as inhabitants of this earth, it is our responsibility to “leave life in a better place than when we found it.”
Through these ideals and morals, Burger has devoted her professional life to shaping significant social service programs that work toward eliminating stigma associated with disability and mental health issues. Burger is the current CEO of Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Houston, expanding the agency’s resources and ability to respond to safety net basic needs, community emergencies and individuals who need ongoing help with counseling and other services.
In her work with the JFS, Burger has worked to establish the Celebration Company, a faith-based organization for individuals with disabilities that provides life skills and meaningful employment with the purpose of providing services and creating products that celebrate the good of life. The program is centered around people with intellectual disabilities and people with mental health issues. It focuses on five core components: teaching vocational skills, life skills, social skills, functional academics and wellness skills all catered specifically to the individual’s specific needs. The program offers supported and transitional employment that works to benefit potential employers by giving them an opportunity to decrease stigma and work with people with disabilities in a professional capacity. Other projects like Project Shalom provide support and an outlet for adults with mental illness to reach their potential and fulfill their greatest dreams.
Burger’s interest in the disability community stems from her personal experiences of having close family members like her father depend on disability benefits since she was twelve years old. Her continued interest is driven by her 23-year-old nephew, Mitchell Marcus, who she describes as the “most amazing young man I know who gives me my drive to make the world better with him and for him.”
After seeing friends of hers struggle to create a future for their children with disabilities, Burger knew she had to intervene. She was ashamed that the Jewish community had no resources that were culturally or spiritually appropriate for people with disabilities.
“It broke my heart that there wasn’t an answer for what is next for them,” she said.
With this ambition to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities, Burger worked to transform Celebration Company and other projects for the Jewish population in Houston.
While Burger believes that Houston is “a good fish tank to model ideas,” she also has focused her efforts on other areas of the country. She has reached outside of her Jewish community and has personally staffed inclusion committees in partnership with two different synagogues.
“My team and I tried to change the way community-wide programs were presented by encouraging language changes on invitations and offering closed captioning at the events,” Burger said.
Utilizing her extensive fundraising and development skills, Burger began a monthly phone conference for Jewish communities who provide residential services and created a resource guide to help other JFS agencies know where welcoming services take place. She has truly personified the idea that “all around us are people with challenges, you just need to learn to recognize and support them.”
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RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. This summer 15 Fellows are learning from more than 40 guest speakers. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact ChristopherT@RespectAbility.org for more information.