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Jewish Inclusion

A Sampling of Poetry from Erika Abbott

Headshot of Erika Abbott smiling seated on a couch. Text: "Poetry from Erika Abbott"As you know, a major focus of our Jewish program is providing varied venues for Jews with disabilities to enrich the Jewish community with their talent. A critical facet of the Jewish experience is artistic expression through:  music, visual arts, dance, photography, creative writing and poetry.

As a people, we have celebrated many great poets:  Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor . . . ”); Israeli Yehuda Amichai (“A child is . . .”); Hannah Senesh (“Blessed is the flame . . .”); and Allen Ginsberg (“I saw the best minds . . .”) are but four examples. With one in five Jews experiencing disability, it is entirely possible that one or more of these luminaries had a disability of some kind, but whether or not that is the case, Jews with disabilities should have an important role in our artistic voice. [continue reading…]

A Journey to Exploring Faith

Joshua Steinberg headshot wearing a suit and tie

Joshua Steinberg

I have already shared my enthusiasm for my position as the Associate for Jewish Leadership, but even now I find religion an abstract topic. It has been difficult to wrap my head around, and to believe in. The idea that a supreme being has control over our lives can be scary to think about. I never considered myself a religious person and never truly believed in the existence of God.

Like many of us in nonprofit leadership, I am moved by the notion of a higher purpose or calling, but like many, I struggle with the notion of faith in a divine being. Yet I’m beginning to realize in this role, that for Jewish leaders there can be different paths of faith, and different connections to Jewish identity… During my youth, I wanted to spend my time with friends having fun. One day, I closed my eyes to reflect on my life, and saw my grandmother shaking her head at me. I took it as a sign that my grandmother would not be pleased with the direction I was taking and started changing my life for the better and to make myself happier. I was also beginning to explore my beliefs in order to find fulfilment. [continue reading…]

Caring for Ourselves, Caring for One Another and Finding Needed Resources

Election Day came, Election Day went. Each American experienced the ensuing, nail-biting days differently. We are delighted that several disability allies – from both parties – won their races. We look forward to partnering with them and others in the future.

Disability or no disability, the voting process during a pandemic was a feat. This feat was followed by the stress and/or anxiety of The Count, regardless of the candidate we supported. With the hyper-focus of the election now behind us, we are still left with this deadly pandemic and the health and employment challenges that come with it. [continue reading…]

Glass Half Full: Acquiring A Disability

It is a common statement in disability circles that, if you live long enough, you will join us. Part of our key mission here at RespectAbility is to help people understand the blessings we can experience even as we deal with the challenges that a disability can raise, and how much value we can bring to the world as people with disabilities. This week, our contributor is Rachael Risby Raz, now 46, who works as the International Relations Manager of the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. After a relatively recent diagnosis of MS, she gives us insight into how she continues to build a life of positive power as she adjusts to her new reality. At this time of great change here in America, Rachael shares some important lessons that we can learn from Israel about ensuring that people with disabilities have the medical care and employment structures needed to succeed (from insurance to unemployment benefits). Please consider her words, and have a Shabbat Shalom,

Matan Koch
Director of RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership [continue reading…]

What Do You Pray For?

Ben Rosloff wearing a jacket and a headset standing behind a large video camera

Benjamin Rosloff

In this week’s Shabbat Smile, Matan Koch, Director of Jewish Leadership at RespectAbility, and Benjamin Rosloff, a Jewish Inclusion Fellow in our National Leadership Program, talked about Ben’s new idea for a multimedia series, “What Do You Pray For?!”

The idea builds off of Ben’s work filming a young boy’s bar mitzvah a few years ago. He did not have speech, and was using an augmentative communication device, and Ben found himself thinking, was he hearing the bar mitzvah boy’s voice or the filtered thoughts that he had programmed in with his parents? He questioned himself: what did the boy really pray for?

Later, Ben went to Israel and saw people putting notes and prayers in the Western Wall, and went to the Ohel, where people pray and leave notes of prayers on the Rebbe’s tombstone.  There were so many notes and stories. Ben wondered what messages and requests people were asking from G-d. He began to realize that whether it is an augmentative communication device, a prewritten speech or the natural filters that we put in place when talking to others, it isn’t always easy to determine what people really pray for. He felt it is even less likely for people with disabilities, whose voices are so often counted out. [continue reading…]

We Want Your Ideas!

A sukkah in the middle of a desertThough tonight begins Shmini Atzeret, this week RespectAbility joyously celebrated Sukkot with a gathering in our virtual sukkah. HUC student and Jewish advisory committee member Rachel Rothstein taught us about the holiday. She opened with upbeat Israeli music, reminding us that the rabbis called Sukkot “the time of our joy”. After performing the ritual of the lulav (fun Sunday school fact: though we colloquially refer to the lulav and the aromatic etrog, the etrog is actually one of the four parts, or species, that make up the lulav). All five senses were virtually ignited!

Rachel then shared with us the rabbinic teaching that the four species of the lulav represented four different types of Jews, but just as the lulav was a union of those four species, so too is the Jewish people a union of all different types of Jews. [continue reading…]

A Rosh Hashanah Shabbat Smile

On behalf of myself and all of my colleagues here at RespectAbility, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and a Shana Tova. Please enjoy this piece written by Joshua Steinberg, the Program Associate for RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership. May you have a safe, sweet, happy, and healthy new year!

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
President, RespectAbility

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 weekly Shabbat Smiles, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Shabbat Smile are those of the guest contributor.

The Shabbat Smile is curated and edited by Debbie Fink, RespectAbility’s Director of Community Outreach and Impact and Vivian Bass, RespectAbility Executive Committee Board Member. If you would like to write a Shabbat Smile, please email Debbie at

This Rosh Hashanah, Share Your Investment in Accessibility with Those Who Need It

I write you today with a story and a request. It was a year ago this week on the Jewish calendar that RespectAbility decided it was time for me to move from Boston to Los Angeles to take the reins of our Los Angeles-based Jewish projects. Los Angeles (and everywhere else) has a shortage of accessible rental units, and finding one is quite a process. Hence I began my search for accessible, extended-stay hotels and other stopgap efforts, and put out word to our Jewish allies in LA that I was looking for a place to stay with a roll-in shower – a necessary accessibility feature for me.

I promptly heard from the spirited singer/songwriter/music producer and community builder Craig Taubman, whose amazing work at the Pico Union Project is worth checking out. He said that he might have friends who fit the bill. It was thus that I met the lovely couple with whom I would live for the next three months until finding my permanent home in LA. They are truly wonderful, and no doubt would have extended this hospitality just because of their generous spirit, as they had done for previous itinerant Jews. But there was something else. Their accessible shower had been built for a beloved family member who had since passed on. They confided in me their joy, and the joy that they felt she would have had, knowing that this investment in accessibility was providing access for someone else, years later. [continue reading…]

Real Board Diversity Includes Jewish Leaders with Disabilities

Michelle Friedman, vice chair of the board of Keshet and on Keshet’s board of governance and development committees

Michelle Friedman headshotAs a woman who grew up in a strongly identified observant family, attended Jewish day school and camp, and had a bubby who devoted herself to Jewish organizations, the obligation of tikkun olam, chesed and serving the community were engrained since childhood. So, when I left my career to be a stay-at-home mother in the mid 80’s, I sought an opportunity to serve. I became involved in my synagogue and children’s school, and eventually a friend invited me to serve on the board of Shalva, which provides service to Jewish victims of domestic violence in the Chicago area. (Not to be confused with Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities.)

This began my 32-year career as a professional volunteer, which I am proud to say has included service on nine nonprofit boards, eight of which are in the Chicago Jewish community. I am even prouder that every one of those organizations sought my leadership and saw my capability, even after I became blind 28 years ago.

They did not focus on my blindness, but focused on my value as a board member, and reaped the benefits. I have served as fundraising chair on six boards, and as Board President of three – soon to be four.  

This means that I have attended countless meetings, conferences and seminars, and I always seem to be the only person at the table with a disclosed disability. As I have become more knowledgeable about board governance best practices, and as our boards have become more professional, strategic, and intentional, I noticed that the conversation about board diversity has never included the disabled community. [continue reading…]

Jewish Education is Virtually Zooming Right Along!

Two weeks ago, Lily Coltoff highlighted the symbolic role of the number seven in Judaism. This week’s Shabbat Smile continues with this “seven motif,” all weaving an overall message about virtual Jewish education during this pandemic and beyond.

1) To open, I invite you on a musical, whimsical st/roll down memory lane, by listening to and/or learning the lyrics to an age-old Israeli song – suddenly relevant to our virtual Zoom world!

Zum [Zoom] Gali Gali
(hyperlinked to recording of song)
Ha-chalutz l’mahn avodah, avodah l’mahn ha’chalutz:
The pioneer is for the work. And the work is for the pioneer.

For one-time Zionists over a certain age, raised on the lore of immigrants turning now-Israel’s parched desert land into green, arable land, this pioneer song was standard fare. I offer it up now, refreshed, revisited, and renewed through the Zoom lens of 2020: doused in COVID-19, it fertilizes the current call for a new kind of pioneer. The crop we pioneers plant and nurture is our children’s Jewish education. Enjoy the music and/or the metaphor and/or the contemporary messaging.

This pandemic demands of us to be(come) pioneers through Zoom and other similar platforms.  (In jest, I call those of us cemented to our Zoom-screens “Zoombies.”) An example of courageous yet cautious and planful pioneers is documented in this article, showcasing four sleepaway camps that succeeded in remaining open without any COVID-19 outbreaks. (I can attest, as my daughter was a counselor at one of them.)

2) “Chanoch LaNa’ar Al Pi Darco – Educate a child according to their way” (Proverbs 22:6)

As Jews, we were lightyears ahead in understanding multiple learning styles. This proverb validates that each child learns differently. We apply and reinforce this concept each Passover through the Haggadah’s “Four Children.” It is incumbent on us – as teachers, parents, and leaders – to a) recognize the need for varied teaching styles and to b) remain adaptable.

I assert that this pandemic has forced each of us to tap into our inner child: (re)learning how to learn, how to communicate, how to connect; and, most relevant, how to teach most effectively. After a decade or so of trying to wrest our children and ourselves off excessive screen time, we are now challenged to keep them cemented to screen time – at least during instructional learning. How might we do this most effectively? How might we do so with students who have disabilities, ranging from learning disabilities to physical disabilities to chronic illnesses?

3) With these questions in mind, early into COVID-19, RespectAbility organized two convenings for leading educators of Jewish education-driven organizations. Challenges, solutions, frustrations and ideas were put on the Zoom table. Among the involved organizations were (listed alphabetically):

We also curated our Jewish Education-COVID-19, Virtual Education Resource. If you know of additional resources and websites to add, please send them our way to curate.

4) While we prepped for our #ADA30 Summit 2020 — which included a webinar focused on Virtual Education (from a secular lens) — we were also hard at work curating a comprehensive Virtual Education and Students with Disabilities Resource Guide. We hope this guide helps support you and your students during this daunting school year.

5) School in Israel is already underway. With empathy, we have much to learn from her struggles containing COVID-19, its impact on students, teachers, and parents: juggling how to sustain a livelihood and mental health and positive parenting whilst home schooling. Said Dr. Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health, “If there is a low number of cases, there is an illusion that the disease is over. . . . But it’s a complete illusion.”

We in the Diaspora are but a few steps or wheelchair lengths behind. Students and parents worldwide are struggling to stay afloat academically, emotionally, physically, and fiscally. Add to this the needs of students with disabilities in general, and students with chronic illnesses in particular, and, well . . . we must keep plugging, pioneering, innovating. We must keep trying new approaches. We will continue to identify pitfalls and failures. And we will continue to identify successes and best practices. We at RespectAbility will continue to share the latter.

6) Dr. Chaim Ginott, an Israeli early-education pioneer, once said:  Children are like wet cement: whatever falls on them makes an impression. Our efforts with virtual Jewish education will, indeed, make an impression. Hopefully a positive one.

7) As I opened with the age-old Israeli pioneer song “Zoom Gali Gali,” so I close. We are the pioneers for this pandemic’s work. And this work is for us. We may not literally be turning a desert green or making it arable; but together, we are virtually working to turn our Jewish education platforms’ deserts green and arable. Hopefully, following in our tradition of educating our children according to their individual ways, we may succeed in cementing worthwhile and long lasting, positive impressions. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so. To this end, please continue to share tips, tricks, and ideas.

Shabbat shalom!

Debbie Fink
Director of Community Outreach and Impact

In our weekly Shabbat Smiles, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Shabbat Smile are those of the guest contributor.

The Shabbat Smile is curated and edited by Debbie Fink, RespectAbility’s Director of Community Outreach and Impact and Vivian Bass, RespectAbility Executive Committee Board Member. If you would like to write a Shabbat Smile, please email Debbie at

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