As Rosh Hashanah approaches and we enter a new year, it is important to look back and reflect on the year that has just passed. In doing so, we look at all of the decisions we have made this year and try to remember that we can always do more and always do better.
As a person with learning disabilities, I have worked hard to learn to use my disabilities to my advantage and to help me succeed. Yet it took a long time to get to that point. Growing up, school and work were always daunting tasks. I was teased because of my learning disabilities and over time it put me through a period of deep depression. The problem was not that kids want to be mean, it was simply that they did not understand my disabilities. At the time, I did not know how to inform and teach them about disability and did not know how to advocate for myself about my wants and needs.
I was considered an outcast, a weirdo, and was subjected to slurs like the R-word by my peers. I did not have friends or a community. I did not feel like I was a part of anything. It was not until I started becoming active in my synagogue that I finally found my place. I am not a very religious person, but I found solace in my faith community. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was included in something important. My Rabbi and members of the synagogue went out of their way to help me feel at home, and for this I am forever grateful.
I struggled for many years to become happy and accepting of myself. If it weren’t for my synagogue, I do not think I would be who I am today. The values I learned there helped shape me and helped me learn compassion and understanding. It gave me a desire to fight for myself and for others who may be marginalized, excluded, or feel that they have no place in the world. This is what drew me to the disability field. I wanted to use my experience to help ease the path for others, so they do not have to go through similar troubles.
Throughout my life, I moved from job to job learning a number of different industries; yet I never felt like I was understood, taken seriously, or had really found my place. It was not until I was in my late twenties that I decided to go back to school to pursue my passion, which led me to the political science field so that I can learn to be an advocate for people with disabilities. I wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives, just as my Rabbi and faith community had done for me. My current role gives me that chance.
So, where am I going with this? In this difficult period in history, with the ongoing threat from COVID-19, wildfires across the West coast, hurricanes, violence, and general unrest throughout the country and the world, we need to look to each other for strength and support. We need to work together to make a better world, advancing the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam. It is through us and our allies advocating for marginalized communities that we can begin to reshape how people think about us. Disability has long been stigmatized and the fight to remove those stigmas has been an arduous journey. If we remember that all people no matter their disability, race, religion, or sexual orientation are capable of achieving anything, and that we are all made in the image of God, it should strengthen and motivate us to be better and to do better.
As we dive into a new year, I invite you to ask yourself, what have I done to include others this year? How can I be more inclusive next year? What can I do to make someone’s life just a little better? Consider using these questions as a guide, to keep others in mind and to be the best ally that you can be, whether it is to the disabled community, the LGBTQ+ community, or any other marginalized community that is open to support. It is up to everyone to speak out and advocate for the rights and benefit of others.
In our Jewish Disability Perspectives newsletter, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Jewish Disability Perspectives contribution are those of the guest contributor. If you would like to write for the newsletter, contact Joshua Steinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.