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Jewish Inclusion

Shabbat Smile: Building an Inclusive Sanctuary for All People

At the beginning of the holiday season, Rabbi Daniel Dorsch delivered a sermon from his brand new, inclusive sanctuary at Congregation Etz Chaim. Read his entire sermon, republished with his permission, below.

I met Anna (not her real name) for the first time when I was a chaplain at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. I was a rabbinical student at 25, and she was a 21 year old college student, sucking a lolly pop lying in bed, and a patient at the hospital.

Not an uncommon question for an awkward, new chaplain, I sat down in her room next to her bed, and asked what brought her there. That’s when Anna began her story by showing me that she didn’t have any legs. And she told me she was in the hospital because someone had died and left her all of their organs for a multiple organ transplant, which she desperately needed to live. The lolly pop it turned out, was not for fun; it was medicine to help improve her chances of the transplant taking. [continue reading…]

Doug Jarett: How one person can make a difference

Doug Jarett smiling wearing a red bandana around his neck.

Doug Jarett

On August 18, 2019, Douglas Jarett, a 51-year-old mensch with Down Syndrome, died unexpectedly. Obviously, it is a tragedy when someone so young dies, especially when it is someone as beloved as Doug. However, I’m making Doug our “shabbat smile” because the impact of his life was enormous and he always made me and others smile. He really broke glass ceilings and made such a big difference in the world!

Doug had been living in the community with friends through supports from Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence (JCHAI) and had worked for over 30 years at Ludington Library in Lower Merion Township. Thirty years ago, how many people with Down syndrome were in the workforce? Very few. He broke the mold. [continue reading…]

Tips for parents of Jewish children with disabilities

For this week’s Shabbat Smile, RespectAbility’s president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi offers tips on things parents of children with disabilities and their teachers need to do in order to have a great experience in Hebrew and religious school. This piece was previously published in the Times of Israel.

As someone with a disability myself, and who also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities, I’ve become an advocate for my children on so many fronts. Jewish education and involvement is no different. After all, when it comes to disability and inclusion issues, despite good intentions, many Jewish institutions don’t even know what they don’t know. So it is up to people with disabilities, and the people who love them, to educate and advocate for people with disabilities in Jewish life. This is especially true in the context of enabling children with disabilities to have full access to Jewish education.

In all likelihood, your child with special needs either goes to public school or a private school specifically designed to serve children with disabilities. Their teams are steeped in knowledge around accommodations, IEPs, differentiated learning. That is generally not the case in most Hebrew and religious schools, so there is a learning curve. Thus, here are some tips for success.

1. Know you are not alone.

Fully 1-in-5 Americans has a disability. Jews, due to genetic disorders and the fact that overall we have children much later in life than other groups, can be more at risk for disabilities. So while parenting a child with differences feels lonely at first, seek out other families with similar experiences and you will find them. They can offer good advice, and may become your new best friends.

2. Find out if there is a congregation in your area with real experience and success in working with children like yours.

Call your local Jewish federation or disability groups to see what resources and leads they can offer. Ask other parents of children with disabilities about their experiences with different congregations. Go online look at the congregations’ website. Does it say they welcome and serve people with disabilities or not? Interview the Rabbis and the heads of the religious schools in your area. Join a congregation that really wants to serve children with disabilities — and is prepared to do so.

RespectAbility, MATAN and others are working with a number of Congregations around the country that are making an extra effort on inclusion. If you already belong to a congregation that you like, and they don’t currently serve children with disabilities, ask them if they are ready to learn to do it right. If so, you can refer them to the free tools on our website at Also, there is a free webinar for synagogues that is especially relevant during the High Holidays as is our own High Holiday Toolkit.

3. Write an “all about how to succeed with my kid” letter.

Yes, you should also prepare a file with your child’s Individualize Education Plan (IEP) and suggestions for success from any speech, physical, occupational, mental health or other therapists that work with your child. But don’t expect a religious or Hebrew schoolteacher to be knowledgeable enough to understand that material. Your letter should be easy to read and follow toolkit for working with your child. Put things into simple language with bullets of information that the school needs to know to make your child’s experience safe and successful. Remember, as a parent, you have unique insights about your child that can help your child’s teacher understand his/her strengths and needs. Your candor, experience and advice will be much appreciated. Depending on the age of your child, you may want to invite your child to give you ideas on what you should express in your memo to the teaching team.

4. Request a meeting with your child’s teacher and team.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because Hebrew and religious school is part time, that you can skip this process. Yes, you and they are busy. However, if you miss out on doing a real substantive conversation, you may create a situation that will turn your child off to Judaism. Additionally, it is not enough to meet with the principal of the school or the Rabbi. You need to sit face-to-face with the actual person who will be in the classroom with your child, as well as the school leaders who support that teacher. Invite the Rabbi and Cantor to the meeting as well. If needed, bring your child’s therapists. Depending on the age of your child, you may want to bring them to this meeting.

In advance of the meeting, you should send your letter about your child to all the meeting participants. Bring copies of it to the meeting as well, and have your “elevator pitch” about your child ready to go. You may want to practice it in front of someone in advance. It is important to get your points across quickly so they can ask questions. Teachers will really appreciate your efforts, resources and transparency.

Once the teachers learn about your child, the school may want to put an extra “madrich”/aid in the classroom to support your child’s needs. Alternatively, they may want to match your child with a different teacher who is more experienced. If so, do your “elevator pitch” and Q&A with that teacher as well. The congregational school may benefit from having your child’s occupational or physical therapist meet with them, or join the class for a day, to give the teacher some tips. Still, painful though it may be, you need to leave room for them to say that they cannot meet your child’s needs and you need to look elsewhere. It is much better to switch congregations or religious schools, or move to a “Friendship Circle” type of Jewish engagement, than to put your child in a place that isn’t safe and supportive.

5. Ask about the teacher and team’s preferred method of communication.

Mutual respect and trust are important to all relationships. This includes the relationship you want to cultivate with your child’s teacher and the clergy in your congregation. That’s why it’s important to find out which method of communication suits them the best. Many will prefer emails.

6. Be fully honest with the team.

If your child has tantrums, be sure they understand the triggers that cause them, and what will generally prevent them. If your child needs a head’s up before a transition, or has a tick or expression that they use that indicates your child is anxious, the team needs to know that so they can best serve your child. This is not the time to worry about privacy – you need to focus on safety and success.

7. Be upbeat.

Teachers want proactive parents. A positive relationship with your child’s teacher will help your child feel good about the experience. But before you hit “send,” look over your messages and make sure they’re respectful of the teacher’s time and also of their efforts to help your child. It’s great for you to ask questions and make suggestions as long as your messages convey your trust that the teacher is performing her job ethically and responsibly. You want to be their partner. Remember that the teacher is a person first. Send thank you notes, volunteer, let them know when your child really enjoyed a particular lesson, and try to be considerate of their schedule; teachers have families too.

8. Share your enthusiasm for Judaism with your child.

Talk with your child about they will be learning during the year, and why it is important to you. Celebrate Shabbat and holidays at home and show that it matters to YOU as well. Walk the walk. Let your child know that you have confidence in their ability to master the content, and that you believe it will be a positive part of their life. Reinforce the natural progression of the learning process that occurs over the school year. Learning skills take time and repetition. Encourage your child to be patient, attentive, and positive. Not to mention to enjoy being Jewish!

9. Slow down and take the time to do it right.

Transitions are often difficult for children with disabilities. There will be a few bumps in the road. Your child will have a successful year at school in spite of them. As we move into the first few weeks of school and the High Holidays, stay calm and positive. Remember to take care of yourself. Know your limitations, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make sure your child has enough sleep, plenty of time to get up, eat breakfast, and get to school.

10. Familiarize yourself with the other synagogue professionals.

Make an effort to find out who it is in the congregation who can be a resource for you and your child. Learn their roles and how best to access their help if you need them. This can include the principal, cleaning and kitchen crew, front office personnel, rabbi, cantor and lay leaders who may work with kids with disabilities in their professional jobs.

11. Reinforce your child’s ability to cope.

Give your child a few strategies to manage a difficult situation on his or her own. But encourage your child to tell you or the teacher if the problem persists. Maintain open lines of communication with the school.

12. Help your child make at least one real friend there.

Arrange play dates. Try to arrange get-togethers with some of your child’s classmates during the first weeks of school to help your child establish positive social relationships with peers. Go to Jewish holiday events with other children and help facilitate actual friendships for your child. If the social events at your congregation are led by different people than the religious school, make sure they also know how to succeed with your child. Parents of other children with and without disabilities who are friends with your child can become your new best friends as well.

13. Listen to Your Child’s Feelings.

When your child shows any anxiety about going back to school or going to Jewish events or institutions, the worst thing you can do is brush it off with a “don’t worry about it” response. Listen and be responsive to your own child and empower them to advocate for themselves as well. Show them your love. Sometimes you need to take a little step back in order to move forward.

14. Enjoy their childhood. It goes way too fast!

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

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…]

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