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Jewish Inclusion

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.

Beit Issie Shapiro: A Place for Joy – Shabbat Smile By Yoav Kraiem

At Beit Issie Shapiro, joy is present every day – this is our protest to a world that views disability through the lens of helplessness and suffering.

Beit Issie Shapiro, tucked away in Ra’anana, Israel, is a leading pioneer of innovative therapies and services to improve the lives of people with disabilities, impacting on almost half a million people annually in Israel and worldwide. Beit Issie Shapiro develops new therapies, changes attitudes in society, advocates for better legislation and shares knowledge internationally through its research and training.

It also pioneered Israel’s first early intervention center; the first hydrotherapy program for children with developmental and physical disabilities; the provision of specialized dental care; and unique Snoezelen multi-sensory environments for children with autism and other sensory issues. For many years its dedicated professional team has changed lives of people with disabilities while reaching out and supporting families in an atmosphere of warmth, love and respect. [continue reading…]

Webinar: Jewish Leadership for the Future


Read the webinar transcript
Download the accessible PowerPoint
Watch the webinar on YouTube with live embedded captions

This webinar featured a discussion with RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Senior Advisor Matan Koch, and Executive Committee Board Member Vivian Bass about our exciting new initiative, Project Moses. Project Moses is dedicated to creating a leadership pipeline of Jews with Disabilities and preparing Jewish organizations to receive them. Only with authentic leadership with disabilities can the Jewish community truly become inclusive, and only by not closing itself off to the 20% of Jews with disabilities can the Jewish community find the leaders it needs to stay strong and vibrant in the 21st-century.

About Our Speakers:

[continue reading…]

Giving A Vision Meaning – Shabbat Smile By Lisa Handelman

Judaism taught me that we are all created in the image of God; the disability rights movement has taught me what this means.  This statement from Rabbi Ruti Regan, an Autistic Conservative Rabbi, has become a personal mantra that defines why disability inclusion is critical to us as a community. At the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, our mission is to inspire, build, and sustain vibrant Jewish life in a changing world by mobilizing our community in common purpose, intentional innovation, and effective action. Advancing inclusion is one way we give this mission meaning.

Guided by the work of Dr. Arielle Silverman, social scientist and creator of Disability Wisdom, I have begun to appreciate the stages that we go through on the journey to advance disability inclusion. This journey marks the transformation from antipathy to passive exclusion to helping as a form of chessed (charity).  It involves a growing understanding of individual accommodations and the fundamental right to be included. The somewhat allusive end of this journey is a paradigm shift where inclusion becomes something seamlessly embedded into society.

Our actions place us at various stages on the inclusion journey. When we fail to consider who is missing from the communal table or proactively budget to provide accommodations, we slip into passive exclusion.  When we reach out to help others, we begin to acknowledge that the image of God is in each of us. This is a complicated journey with steps forward and backwards. Inclusion is not a checklist to complete and move on.  As we listen to each other, we discover changing needs that require ongoing introspection and innovation.  Advancing this social justice movement requires thoughtful reflection and community leadership.

As we learn from disability advocates within our community, we begin understanding the ramifications of ableism, start to challenge the status quo and look for innovative ways to create change. Central agencies, like The Jewish Federation, provide an active space for the discussions and collaborations that enable us to improve our community.  At Federation, the Disability Inclusion Network is an open forum dedicated to exploring complex issues with disability self-advocates, community members, and agency professionals. This year, we have had the pleasure of learning from activists like Judy Heumann, Arielle Silverman and Aaron Kaufman.

Convening and collaborating is also the focus of the Federation’s Disability Inclusion Synagogue and Employment Working groups. The former inspires participants to recognize where they are in their inclusion journey and identify steps to advance inclusion. The latter helps businesses address their needs by employing individuals with disabilities. The employment group also organizes the annual Road to Independence: A Resource Fair for Young Adults with Disabilities and their Families, which is free and open to the public, and takes place this month on Sunday, March 31st, 1:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington (https://shalomdc.org/resourcefair). Additional initiatives to combat stigma include Youth Mental Health First Aid Training and the Ambassador of Inclusion educational curriculum. Resources for advancing inclusion and listings for upcoming events can be found on Federation’s Disability and Inclusion webpage (https://www.shalomdc.org/disabilitiesandinclusion).

Advancing disability inclusion is a journey based on Jewish values that encourages us to care for each other and create good in the world.  Being inclusive makes our community more open, connected, and vibrant. We can all agree on the value of being inclusive. By working together, we can mean it.


Lisa Handelman is the Community Disabilities Inclusion Specialist at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. As a community resource and area specialist, Lisa partners with individuals with disabilities, families, and community lay and professional leaders to develop, implement, and monitor opportunities for inclusion of individuals with disabilities into all aspects of Jewish learning and living. Lisa has worked in Jewish education and inclusion for over 20 years, including leadership roles at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, SULAM, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Capital Camps & Retreat Center, where she designed and has led the nationally recognized inclusion-based program for the past 15 summers.

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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