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Washington, DC skyline with capitol building in foreground and Washington Monument in background. Text: Survey Results The D.C.-area Jewish Community and People with Disabilities

Poll: Most D.C.-area Jews Don’t Know Any Rabbis or Staff with Disabilities

Concerns High on Access to Healthcare, Education, Jobs, Fighting Stigmas and Jewish Inclusion

Washington, D.C., January 7, 2019 – More than 4000 respondents participated in a RespectAbility survey focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities in America. This includes 133 Jews in the disability community in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, and an additional 42 with no disability connection in this region. More than 900 Jews who self-disclose they are a person with a disability participated in the study overall.

Text: Do you know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at your own faith based institutions? Pie chart with results.

59% of Jewish D.C.-area respondents with disabilities do not know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at their synagogue.

The Jewish respondents with disabilities in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) region and across the nation point to a lack of people with disabilities in leadership roles as Rabbis, cantors or staff at Jewish institutions. While overall things are improving significantly in terms of access and inclusion for Jews with disabilities in the DMV, they also do not yet fully feel welcomed to serve as leaders in lay positions in the Jewish community. Only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities know of a person with a disability in a leadership position. Nationally fewer than 10 percent of Jews with no disability connection know of a person with a disability in leadership. Only 17 percent of area Jews in the disability community answer “yes” that they “feel that people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on the boards and committees of your faith-based institutions,” which is in line with the national results at 18 percent.

Said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, “If you see it, you can be it – and today Jews with disabilities need more role models with disabilities in leadership in the Jewish community. Many also want to be recruited, trained and empowered to make the Jewish community stronger, just like anyone else.”

DC, MD and VA numbers track with the opinions of the national sample of Jewish respondents (2,570), that a series of issues are all seen as relevant in the following order of importance. Protecting access to healthcare, Medicaid, and SSDI for people with disabilities (44 percent), and enabling them to get the education and jobs that they need to succeed (30 percent), fighting stigmas (18 percent), and increasing inclusion for people with disabilities in faith-based institutions (eight percent).

Said Aaron Orlofsky, a member of RespectAbility’s board of directors and a major supporter of the study, “We are a stronger community when we live up to our values— when we are welcoming, diverse, moral, and respect one another. We want our children, parents, grandparents, and other family and friends with disabilities to be able to have an equal opportunity to fully participate in our community.”

Said Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington (JFGW), “Indeed, under the staff direction of Lisa Handelman, JFGW works with over 40 congregations and has a vibrant Disability Inclusion Network that include over 100 lay leaders and community professionals who are working together to expand the involvement of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of our community.”

Nationally, 85 percent of Jewish respondents are concerned about increasing inclusion of people with disabilities in their faith community, including 35 percent who are extremely concerned. Still, while it is important to them to increase inclusion, it also is clear that of primary concern are healthcare, education and jobs.

Respondents ranked many areas of Jewish life as very important to extremely important to include Jews with disabilities, from Jewish Day School to holiday programs, and from youth groups to assisted living. In the DMV Sulam is playing an increasingly important role in expanding access and success for students with a variety of disabilities in Jewish day schools. This is being accomplished through direct support services to students, as well as through professional development for teachers to elevate teaching practices that are inclusive of a wider range of learners.

Overall, while Jews with and without disabilities are not fully satisfied with the level of inclusion in the Jewish community, but they do see things as getting better. Encouragingly, 72 percent of DC, MD, VA Jews with a disability connection feel that the community is doing “somewhat well” or better on inclusion of people with disabilities. This is higher than national numbers of 43 percent of both Jews with and without disabilities who feel that the community is doing “somewhat well” on inclusion of people with disabilities (PWDs).

Nationally, 38 percent of Jewish PWD respondents feel that the community is doing “a little better” on inclusion over the past five years. In DC, MD and VA, these progress numbers are more encouraging with 72 percent of Jews with a disability connection describing inclusion as a “little better” (49 percent) or “much better” (23 percent). Of note, 29 percent of DC, MD, VA Jewish respondents with no disability connection “do not know” if there has been any improvement over the past five years, pointing still to a lack of awareness and an opportunity to increase inclusion.

When asked, “Aside from an individual’s family and friends, which part of the community is most responsible for increasing inclusion of people with disabilities,” the leading responses in DC, MD, VA is synagogues (37 percent), followed by Jewish Federations (23 percent).

Jews in the DC, MD, VA disability community also point to Jewish Day Schools (30 percent) and social organizations (24 percent) as the most challenging areas for inclusion.

Nationally, more than a third of Jewish respondents with a disability identify the biggest barrier as “prejudice and unacknowledged stigma against people with disabilities.” Jews with no disability connection note prejudice first as well at 28 percent but other answers again point to opportunities to increase inclusion in that another 37 percent combined point to the largest barriers being a lack of information rather than will:

  • “Religious leaders and activists want to be inclusive, but they don’t know how.” (19 percent)
  • “Including people with disabilities can be complicated and we don’t have the expertise to serve every need.” (18 percent)

The top type of disability noted by members of our community is mental health. Indeed, 21 percent of the Jewish respondents personally have a mental health condition or someone in their household does. In DC, MD and VA, this number rose to 26 percent. Said Linda Burger, Treasurer of RespectAbility and CEO of Jewish Family Services of Houston, “There is an epidemic of suicides in the Jewish community and we have to address this.”

DC, MD and VA Jews in the disability community noted in open-ended responses a series of events when they were not included, such as:

A rabbi yelled at a family with a disability that he wasn’t disabled, just badly brought up and educated. This person has congenital brain damage.

Been excluded from Jewish day school, camps and synagogues repeatedly.

My mother was in a wheelchair and could not get into a synagogue she would like to have attended.

My daughter was not allowed to join Bnai Brith Girls and were directed instead to a separate program for only special needs people. They were all adults and my daughter was only 15 or 16. Also, the program was not very good. They only met one time. I also couldn’t get an accommodation (a shadow) for my daughter anymore once she reached middle school. They couldn’t find anyone so they just said “oh well.”

This survey was made possible by the financial support of The Genesis Prize Foundation, which worked with Jewish Funders Network to conduct the Breaking Barriers Initiative, created to honor Itzhak Perlman, 2016 Genesis Prize Laureate and world-renowned violinist and activist for people with disabilities. Ahuva and Aaron Orlofsky of the ORLO Fund and the Beverly Foundation matched that support. The overwhelming response to the survey would not have been possible without the partnership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, UJA-Federation of New York, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the LA Jewish Journal and JTA.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email

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