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Jewish Inclusion

Disability Access and Inclusion Training Series Continues This Week

More than 100 people joined the first session of the new “Disability Access and Inclusion Training Series for Jewish Organizations and Activists” offered by a coalition of over 40 Jewish organizations. The session “Inclusion as a Jewish Value” laid the groundwork for the other six sessions, not only demonstrating clearly that inclusion is present even in our earliest texts, but also responding to common misconceptions and obstacles.

Aaron Kaufman, Senior Legislative Associate at the Jewish Federations of North America, who has cerebral palsy, shared with us how his Judaism informed his leadership in disability policy, and his disability gave him a unique facet to lead in the Jewish world. He was also quick to point out that this was nothing new, and that in fact Moses – our greatest teacher – himself had a disability. Aaron also lined up a number of common concerns raised about practicing disability inclusion, from a perceived conflict with other inclusion needs to a perception of cost. Aaron responded factually, pointing out that disability cut across all categories, and that everyone could join the disability community eventually. He also pointed out that the financial cost of accommodation was low. [continue reading…]

Fighting Racism / Advancing Equity and Inclusion

I hope that you are staying safe and healthy. Before I begin our weekly exploration of Jewish disability inclusion, I must begin the Shabbat Smile by noting that this is a gut-wrenching time in our nation. We are all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and massive job loss challenges. Now the uprisings taking place across America have illuminated the impact of racism on society. The recent murders of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro police are a reminder that key parts of our criminal justice system are broken. The false accusal of two Black men for the drowning of Alejandro Ripley, a nonverbal 9-year-old with Autism, offers another example of the harmful impact of discrimination.

These and other events reveal glaring and conspicuous inequality in America, and RespectAbility strongly condemns them. There is no greater Jewish value than standing with those who are oppressed in the pursuit of justice.

We must use this moment to recognize the pain of Black Americans and work together on fostering an environment of empathy and understanding. RespectAbility is committed to supporting our partners who are working tirelessly to dismantle systematic and structural racism to ensure that every citizen has an opportunity to move the country forward and live out their true potential.

As we support our allies in this critical work, we are grateful to announce that a coalition of nearly 40 Jewish organizations have joined with us to launch a great new Jewish Disability Access & Inclusion Training Program.

This series, which will run virtually from June 23 through August 11, is a collective virtual offering to the Jewish world so Jewish organizations can welcome, respect and include people with disabilities from all backgrounds in the important work that they do. People can choose from one or more sessions, or onboard all the learning so their organization can become fully inclusive of people with disabilities.

Does your synagogue or other Jewish organization wish to cosponsor?

While RespectAbility is organizing this training, we view this training series as a resource for the entire Jewish world as it strives to improve its inclusion of Jews with disabilities. As such, we are thrilled that so many Jewish organizations, large and small from all over the country, already have put their name on the series. A full list is available at the end of this email. We would love, however, for every Jewish organization in the country to sign on and take ownership.

The series is made possible by support from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles through a Cutting Edge Grant, The Diane & Guilford Glazer Philanthropies, The Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, The David Berg Foundation, the Stanford and Joan Alexander Foundation, Stanley & Joyce Black Family Foundation, and The Beverly Foundation. This means that there is absolutely no cost to our co-promoting partners.

Do you think your organization might wish to sign on?

Visit www.respectability.org/sponsorjewishwebinars. If you need any clarification, or have any questions as you are considering partnership, please email our associate for California and Jewish leadership, Joshua Steinberg, at JoshuaS@RespectAbility.org.

While partnership is only available to organizations, everyone is encouraged to participate, and learn how to become more inclusive. To register, please visit www.respectability.org/jewish-events.

Online Jewish Social Events for Jews with Disabilities

Looking for a community, connection, and togetherness? Join our virtual Schmooze event, or an online Shabbat dinner. For more information on this, and to always be kept abreast of the latest RespectAbility Jewish programs, please visit www.respectability.org/jewish-events. During the pandemic, we are building a virtual community of Jews with disabilities in Los Angeles and beyond and encourage you to join us. However, we hope it will be safe to have events in person before too long.

As we head into Shabbat, I encourage you all to stay safe, and practice good self-care. I also encourage you to reflect on the place that each and every one of us have in dismantling structural racism and other prejudice and drawing our nation closer to living out our ideals.

Shabbat Shalom,
Matan Koch
Director, RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership


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 DebbieF@RespectAbility.org.

Looking for Hope? Meet Matan Koch

Question: What do Shavuot (Shavuos) and COVID-19 have in common? Answer: The call for faith, prayer, and hope . . . and the comfort of cheesy (or non-cheesy) blintzes (or gluten-free blintzes). It is also said that if you put two blintzes side by side on your plate, then you have the visual image of a Torah. Nice, right? Experiential learning.

(Full disclosure – Debbie Fink from our team wrote that. She’s a genius and a gem!)

Shavuot is the holiday that sanctifies the Giving of the Torah – translated to z’man Matan Toratenu. If God was giving us the Torah, we had to be present to receive it. It’s tradition to spend erev (eve of) Shavuot studying – receiving – the gift of the Torah. This year, for those participating in an all-night Zoom Torah study session, you’ll hopefully feel God’s presence as you partake in God’s presents.

Synagogue attendance is not a 2020 option for those observing social distancing. Hence, a few home suggestions are: 1) Read and reflect on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1-20:23). It is said that all Jewish souls – those with and without disabilities; those from the past, present, and future – were present for the Revelation at Sinai. This ‘triple-tense’ connectivity rivals Zoom’s connectivity. Speaking of those from the past . . . remember to 2) Recite Yizkor for your loved ones who have passed. (Yes, we recite Yizkor when it falls on Shabbat, which it does this year.) Take comfort in the notion that, again, we were all together at Sinai during the first Shavuot. Feel the presence of those whom you have loved and lost. May we know no more loss due to, or during, this pandemic. Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so.

So . . . for another Hebrew twist: back to z’man Matan Toratanu: Last week we featured the Jewish Journal’s cover story about our Matan Koch. This week I want to share an excerpt from a recent editorial in the Jewish Journal, “Looking for Hope? Meet Matan Koch”, by David Suisa. Let us draw strength from Matan’s message of hope and from Shavuot’s teachings, and let us continue to hope: to hope for equity and inclusion for all people with disabilities – present and future; and to hope for a cure, a vaccine, a return to work, to school, to synagogues, to simchas, to camps, to travel, to dating, to ballgames, to communal burials and shivas; and so importantly, to visits with loved ones, and on and on and on.

Again, I find myself saying: Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
President, RespectAbility


Looking for Hope? Meet Matan Koch

by David Suissa, Jewish Journal

Matan Koch meets with the disability inclusion committee of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El outside Philadelphia Pennsylvania a few years ago

Matan Koch meets with the disability inclusion committee of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El outside Philadelphia Pennsylvania a few years ago

“The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy. Jews gave it the idea of hope,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote. “The whole of Judaism — although it would take a book to show it — is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities and a nation, habits that defeat despair.”

Sacks characterizes this impulse as the refusal to accept darkness as inevitable. That’s why, he wrote, “It is no accident that so many Jews are economists fighting poverty, or doctors fighting disease, or lawyers fighting injustice.”

Last year, I met one of those activist lawyers, Matan Koch, just before he moved to Los Angeles. Koch, who gets around in a wheelchair, is the subject of our cover story this week.

Since December, he has been the California Director of RespectAbility, a fast-rising nonprofit working to advance opportunities for people with disabilities.

Read the full article at the Jewish Journal


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 DebbieF@RespectAbility.org.

Disability Leader Discovers New Role During COVID-19 Crisis

With every day rolling into the next, it’s nice to know that in the U.S. the calendar marks that we have a long weekend. Memorial Day – America’s Yom Ha’Zikaron – is a day we set aside to remember all our military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. military, helping to ensure America’s four freedoms; freedoms that FDR articulated in his transformative State of the Union Address in January of 1941:

  1. Freedom of Speech
  2. Freedom to Worship
  3. Freedom from Want; and, last but so relevant today
  4. Freedom from Fear.

Yes, we underscore that FDR should have – and could have – done more to save countless lives during the Holocaust. Yet is also said that his powerful “Four Freedoms” speech and vision transformed our nation and the world. He projected the idea of all Americans pulling together (and needing to continue to do so) to face a moment of crisis.

Here we are, yet again, in a monumental moment of crisis. An ongoing moment where three of these four freedoms are in jeopardy: our freedom to worship remains remote and virtual; close to 39 million Americans’ freedom from want is now, at best, on hold; and freedom from fear – fear of the virus, for every inhabitant worldwide, awaiting a vaccine. [continue reading…]

Zoom into JCHAI: by Judith Creed

Participants with disabilities in a Zoom call together. Text: Video - We Love JCHAI CheerFor years, JCHAI’s award-winning Transitions program has provided young adults with developmental disabilities the opportunity to develop social networks while learning skills to transition to living and working in the community. Our in-person classes and outings brought people together to practice life-skills while socializing with friends. The pandemic and current stay-at-home orders have made it impossible to continue our in-person sessions, leaving many of our participants feeling isolated and bored. JCHAI wanted to offer a way for people to continue socializing while learning and practicing their independent living skills, and ZOOM into JCHAI was born! [continue reading…]

COVID-19: A Master Class in Disability Inclusion: by Elie Klein

ALEH residents with disabilities watching a video of a children's book being read aloud on a tv screen

ALEH residents with disabilities watching a video of a children’s book being read aloud

As COVID-19 continues to claim the lives of multitudes around the globe, we have responded with serious introspection and copious goodwill, transforming into the very best versions of ourselves – more grateful, helpful, compassionate and empathetic than ever before.  Surprisingly, we have also effectively proven that we possess the skills, resources and creativity to remove all communal roadblocks for individuals with disabilities and that a truly inclusive society is entirely within our reach.

One of the most obvious examples is the ease with which our world went virtual.  In a matter of days, everything from board meetings to birthday parties were being attended via video conference, as people of all ages began engaging online, and we quickly learned that virtual participation was considerably more effective than we once thought. [continue reading…]

COVID-19 Crisis and People with Disabilities

We all see the news – the deaths, the job losses, the pain. It’s all very hard on our families, communities and even our souls. But what is even more important is the tremendous effort to save lives. Some of this, like the heroic work of first responders, makes the news. But much of the quiet battle does not. I’d love to share with you some important work that RespectAbility has accomplished in conjunction with our allies in the Jewish and disability communities, and some predictions we are offering about the future.

The first phase of this crisis in the United States found us at RespectAbility: [continue reading…]

72 Years of Making Israel Increasingly More Accessible for Everyone: by Howard Blas

An Israeli flag flying against a blue sky.Founded in 1948, Israel’s accessibility for people with disabilities was not a top priority.  I recall several almost comical incidents from nearly 20 years ago when helping people with disabilities navigate Israel.  On one group trip, while pushing 20-something Rivka in a wheelchair in northern Israel, the sidewalk abruptly ended. We carried her in the wheelchair to where sidewalk eventually continued.  In the Old City, near the Kotel, I asked soldiers where was the accessible path. They lifted Rivka up the steps in her wheelchair.

Fortunately, Israel today is fairly accessible and straightforward: from riding buses, to shopping in grocery stores, to studying in university. Modern Israel has become a well-known destination for accessible travel.

Israel’s road to accessibility has been a journey. Physical accessibility doesn’t happen automatically; nor does shifting attitudes toward people with disabilities and accessibility. [continue reading…]

Never Again. Valuing Every Life Equally.

A lit Yom Hashoah candle in a dark room on Yom HashoahToday as we observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we think of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others, including people with disabilities, who were targeted for extermination in Nazi Germany.  It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that all of the perpetrators of this horrific genocide were simply uniquely evil, and that somehow that generation of Germans disproportionately reflected the worst of humanity. And yet, that’s really not true, is it? Hitler was evil. Eichmann and the Nazi Party’s leaders were evil. But we must ask ourselves how they managed to sway a population of generally decent people into at best ignoring – and in many cases participating in – the mass destruction of fellow humans. [continue reading…]

Counting the Days as We Count So Much More

headshot of Vivian Bass smiling at the camera with long hair color photoDuring the 49-day `Counting of the Omer,’ we traditionally retrace our ancestors’ seven-week spiritual journey from Exodus to Sinai each evening. Typically together, we count the days until the 50th day, Shavuot, when we commemorate and joyfully celebrate the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. This year, however, in a manner unprecedented in a century, we are additionally ‘counting days’ in a most precarious, daunting, and totally unfamiliar manner.  As we hold our dear families close to our hearts and close in our homes we count the days – yet without any tangible, identified end to the nightmare of this cruel and excruciating pandemic.

For how many days…or months will we be counting until we return to joyous and fulfilling lives of inclusion within the fabric of our Jewish communities?  And even when we gradually do cease counting the horrid days of the past and begin a gradual return to a semblance of normalcy,  we will forever be counting the losses of beloved family members, friends, colleagues, synagogue congregants and neighbors of all ages, and cherishing the lives lost among the heroic frontline workers, both familiar and unfamiliar. [continue reading…]

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