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Jewish Inclusion

Shabbat Smile from Sara Milner and Sunflower Bakery

L-R: Sara Portman Milner, teen Sunflower program participant, Chef Marion Pitcher, smiling together with their arms around each other inside a kitchenSunflower Bakery is a very popular kosher, pareve Bakery serving the Greater Washington DC Metro Area. We produce unique and delicious pastries, including new menus for all seasons and holidays. Our products are sold at our Café Sunflower in a warm and welcoming environment with extraordinary customer service. Producing outstanding products is one of the keys to Sunflower’s success; producing skilled, well-trained employees for other local food establishments is our raison d’être.

Sunflower Bakery and Café Sunflower are dedicated to providing skilled job training and employment for adults 18+ with learning differences in pastry arts, production baking, barista service and front-of-house operations. Since 2010, Sunflower Bakery has produced 81 Pastry Arts graduates and 10 graduates of our Café Sunflower Employment Training Program. The employment rate of our graduates is high above the 19.1% national employment rate for individuals with disabilities. In fact, of this spring’s graduating class of 14 Pastry Arts students, 88% secured employment within six months of graduating! [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile by Allison Kleinman

This week’s Shabbat Smile was written by Allison Kleinman, Founding Director of The Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs + Adaptations at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan.

As another program year comes to an end at The Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs (CSN) at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, we are incredibly proud of the transformative work of our team of staff, as well as the achievements of our participants and families. Through our programs and events this past year, we have enriched the lives of over 1,200 individuals and their families, connecting them to friends, employment, and community. [continue reading…]

Inclusion in Israeli Synagogues – Shabbat Smile from Zvia Admon

This week’s Shabbat Smile was written by disability advocate and attorney Zvia Admon, focusing on inclusion in Israeli synagogues.

How can we make Israeli congregations more accessible, inclusive and welcoming for people with disabilities and their families?  How can we make sure that people with disabilities are able to fully participate in all activities, together with their families and friends, and that they feel welcomed and valued?

This is a challenge I’ve recently decided to take on. I’ve been active in the disability rights field since I passed the bar in the 1990s. My involvement was initially based on a desire to promote justice and equal rights, and have some vision and hearing impairments myself. [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile: Israel, World Leader in Accessibility

This week’s Shabbat Smile, written by the talented Jon Polin, will show you how Israel is expanding its life-enhancing technologies and success as a global leader in accessibility.

On the heels of impressive strides in public policy and rehabilitative care, technology is now poised to be the third rung to catapult Israel to be the world leader in accessibility. As Howard Blas covered in the June 13, 2019 Shabbat Smile, last month’s Access IsraelFuture of Accessibility” conference gathered leaders from major US cities and 22 countries looking to Israel for policy and planning inspiration. (If the 3000 year old Old City of Jerusalem is now accessible, what excuse do modern cities have?) And in rehabilitative care, Israeli facilities from Sheba Medical Center to Beit Issie Shapiro to ALYN and many others are pioneering new therapy techniques that regularly draw global visitors to learn the latest and greatest in the world of therapies. 

Now, the emerging Israeli assistive technology ecosystem is ready to service increasing global demand. (The World Health Organization says that globally, more than 1 billion people need one or more assistive products, as people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority group.) Why will Israel soon be the world leader in assistive technology? [continue reading…]

Respectability Smile Access Israel – Shabbat Smile by Howard Blas

Attendees at Access Israel's conference together outside the Holy site in Jerusalem, many of them wheelchair users.

Credit: Access Israel/Howard Blas

This week’s Shabbat Smile was written by Howard Blas about a recent Access Israel conference.

Yuval Wenger knows a thing or two about accessibility and inclusion in Israel—and he has been sharing it with Israel and the international community for over two decades. As Founder and President of Access Israel, the NGO that promotes accessibility in Israel, he spoke at its recent international conference.

Yuval depicted Israel’s transformation in accessibility through his family’s own story: he grew up with a father in a wheelchair, and later became a wheelchair user himself. As a child, Yuval simply accepted the fact that he and his siblings would have to help their father navigate the inaccessible world of Israel. This sometimes meant carrying him to get places. [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile by Adam Fishbein

This week’s Shabbat Smile is written by Adam Fishbein, a self-advocate and RespectAbility Fellow.

My religious school experience at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA had its ups and downs. As a child with multiple disabilities that made it difficult, and often disruptive, for me to function in a classroom environment, my parents initially had to push the synagogue to accept my differences and adapt to them. They would have constant meetings with the religious school director about my disruptive behavior and how to handle it. Then, in third grade, the then-new cantor at my synagogue, Rebecca Schwartz, started a student choir. She drew me in through her welcoming spirit and love for music. I found instantaneous inspiration. Sunday choir rehearsal became my favorite time of the week. I loved the process of learning, practicing and, eventually, singing Jewish music at Friday night Shabbat services. I found the focus I lacked in secular and religious school. I found acceptance from my fellow choir members. I found something I was good at and, most importantly, I found the voice that would shape my future.

Meanwhile, my parents and religious school staff worked diligently to adapt the religious school curriculum to my needs. While the student choir had opened the door to my synagogue, my fifth grade (and favorite) religious school teacher, Roz Holtzman, led me further inside during sixth and seventh grade, through my one-on-one instruction and Bar Mitzvah prep. This flexibility and reduced-distraction environment allowed me to learn more effectively and become a Bar Mitzvah at the end of seventh grade, despite my increasing behavioral challenges in adolescence with Tourette Syndrome Repeated Anger-Generated Episodes (RAGEs) at home and school. [continue reading…]

A Very Meaningful Graduation – Shabbat Smile by Stacey Herman

Two separate images of Project Search interns at Kennedy Krieger Institute working

Photo Credit: Kennedy Krieger Institute

In a few days, I’ll be at a graduation—not an unusual event for this time of year, but this graduation will be unique.

It’ll be the culmination of a year of intense learning and internship experiences for six young adults from across the state of Maryland, all of whom have developmental and/or other disabilities. They’ll be graduating from a program called Project SEARCH, which was carefully designed to support individuals with disabilities transition to adulthood by teaching them the skills they need to live in the community at-large, and to find and keep gainful employment.

All six are unique individuals, beloved by their families, friends, teachers and mentors, each with their own dreams and goals, and special, unique talents to offer the workplace. They want to be a part of the world—to live as independently as possible, and to work and contribute to society. They’ve worked so hard this past year, and I can’t wait to celebrate them at their graduation. [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile By Shelly Christensen

Shelly Christensen smiling

Shelly Christensen

For my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples. Isaiah 56:7

The great disability rights advocate, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, z’l’ said, “We don’t welcome people with disabilities because they have disabilities. We welcome them because they are people.”

Becoming a house of prayer for all peoples involves much more than an open door. As I was writing my new book, From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, I wondered if there was more to this verse that might help people understand how important belonging is to people.

Synagogues often turn to Isaiah 56:7 which reads, in part, “my house shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples.” I noticed that in all of the conversations and planning, synagogues and community organizations were focused on the process of HOW to be inclusive, but rarely considered asking people with disabilities how they want to feel – the critical sense of belonging—where their hopes, dreams, needs, and talents become central to “inclusion.” [continue reading…]

My Re-Bat Mitzvah – Shabbat Smile by Rachel Kunstadt

This week’s Shabbat Smile is by Rachel Kunstadt, a mental health advocate and self-advocate in NYC. Her presentation at our Empowerment Training for Jewish Women with Disabilities – entitled “Choosing Life!” – included a musical performance of a song she co-wrote, addressing her agoraphobia.

This past January, I became a Bat Mitzvah for the second time. Or maybe for the first time, depending on how you look at it.

Like every other 13-year-old at my conservative synagogue in Westchester County did that year, on January 11, 2003, I became a Bat Mitzvah. I chanted Torah and Haftorah and delivered a D’Var Torah, while my parents spent thousands of dollars on a party to keep up with the Steins.

I’m told it was a beautiful service, but I was so overcome with anxiety that it’s almost completely lost to me. I definitely don’t remember the party – because I didn’t go. I managed to stay about an hour before I had a massive panic attack. [continue reading…]

A Seat at the Table: Promoting Disability Inclusion at the Passover Seder

Our Shabbat Smile is early this week, so you can have time to: consider making some easy, last minute, inclusive changes if you are hosting a seder; or respectfully engage the host, with suggestions for easy, last minute, inclusive changes. This piece on Seder inclusion was written by Dov Hirth, ALEH’s Coordinator of Marketing, Development and Special Projects.

Four images of children with disabilities participating in ALEH's Mock Seder

Photos courtesy of ALEH, 2019

When done right, the Passover Seder is the ultimate opportunity for experiential learning. Centered around our children, the Seder provides countless opportunities for the inclusion and engagement of children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

After many weeks of practice at school and at home, the stage is set for the youngest child at the Seder to sing Ma Nishtana, melodically musing “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” We encourage every child to contribute to the night’s discourse, to offer thoughts and insights at his or her own levels as to the reasoning behind the evening’s many unusual customs. And we sing tunes with inviting intonations so that everyone can join in and end on a high note with the nursery rhymes of Echad Mi Yodeah and Chad Gadya.

While there are so many ‘traditional’ avenues for education and engagement at the Seder, it’s the Haggadah’s description of the Four Sons – in the name of full inclusion, let us say Four Children – that stands out to me as a crucial teachable moment.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains that the word ‘echad’ (one) is used when introducing each of the Four Children to show us that every single person around the table is equal to one.  Every person, from the ‘wise child’ to the so-called ‘wicked child’ are counted as peers.  Every person, regardless of age, gender, background, education or abilities, are considered equal members of the family and the Jewish nation.

It’s this nod to disability inclusion, the notion that the child who does not know how to ask is also counted as one, that makes this segment of the Seder so meaningful to me. Working at ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities, I have encountered hundreds of beautiful souls who, through no fault of their own, simply do not have the capacity to ask questions at the Seder like other children. It’s heartwarming to know that they, too, have an equal place at the table.

With these children, it is especially important to follow King Solomon’s brilliant pedagogical philosophy of “Educate each child according to their own way” (Proverbs 22:6). While this often means speaking to a child in his or her own language or providing age appropriate explanations and activities, for children with disabilities, it means planning ahead to make the Seder more accessible and focusing on the things they can do throughout the evening.

Some easy ideas for inclusion:

  • Give children with disabilities a seat of distinction at the table, making it clear to all that they are equal participants in the Seder activities.
  • Wash the hands of the children with disabilities when doing Urchatz, the first opportunity to wash our hands at the Seder – it is a wonderful sensory experience that will make an impact on them.
  • Assist these young participants with the dipping of Karpas (the vegetable ‘appetizer’) in saltwater and in taking drops of grape juice (or wine) out of their goblets when counting the Ten Plagues.
  • Find/make and use puppets and props (available for purchase) to engage children – especially those with disabilities – to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in a multisensory way.
  • Encourage children of all levels of ability to work together to hide and retrieve the Afikomen, a classic game of hide and seek that can be transformed into a wonderfully inclusive experience.

While the Haggadah speaks of Four Sons – Four Children – many commentators highlight the existence of a ‘Fifth Child’: one who isn’t even at the Seder table. Through the generations, we have interpreted this as a directive to engage with those who feel detached or disillusioned and have decided to steer clear of the Seder.  But it is important to realize that it can just as easily refer to those who cannot physically make it to the table themselves, and who may have been overlooked because they cannot participate in exactly the same ways.

In this and every generation, it is our obligation to “regard ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt.”  It is likewise our responsibility to ensure that every person is given the opportunity to do the same by participating in the Seder.  Our celebration of freedom can only be complete if there is a seat at the table for everyone, and we can only be truly free if we carry this message of inclusion over to every other day of the year.


Dov Hirth is the Coordinator of Marketing, Development and Special Projects for ALEH (www.ALEH.org). ALEH is a network of care for individuals with severe complex disabilities and a global voice for disability inclusion and accessibility in Israel.  In addition to providing over 750 of Israel’s most vulnerable children with the highest-level medical and rehabilitative care in four residential facilities across the country, ALEH leads the charge for acceptance and inclusion, changing societal attitudes towards individuals with disabilities through experiential education programming, youth leadership and community engagement.  For more than 35 years, ALEH has operated as a global community based on the principles of sensitivity, commitment and kindness, helping children with severe complex disabilities realize their greatest potentials, making a difference in the lives of Israel’s disability community, and building a better, more caring world.

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.

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