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Jewish Inclusion

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 ( 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 ( 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 (

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.

Special in Uniform: An Inclusivity Success Story by Daniel Peri

Cori Ashkenazy in uniform in Israel

Cori Ashkenazy

Cori Ashkenazy was only two-and-a-half-years-old when he and his family made Aliyah, making Israel their new home. But it was only after their arrival to Israel that his parents became aware that their son was “different” than other kids his age: after a battery of tests and evaluations, Cori was diagnosed with autism.

Undiscouraged, Cori’s family invested boundless energy and means to facilitate and support his development and personal advancement. He met regularly with a speech therapist and physiotherapist, who assigned him daily drills and activities to strengthen his hypotonic muscles. To aid in his physical development, any time a new form of therapy was “discovered” or announced, Cori was immediately there to try it, including horseback riding therapy. Overtime, with dedication and patience, Cori overcame his hypotonia.

The joy of conquering and overcoming hypotonia was one thing, but it was the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) draft letter—the same every 17 or 18-year-old Israeli teenager receives—that really sparked Cori’s excitement. On the morning of his induction and draft into the IDF, Cori’s joy turned into disappointment: the recruiting officer monotonously told him and his parents that Cori was exempt from military service due to his autism. [continue reading…]

How My Judaism Helped Me Accept My Disability – Shabbat Smile

Michelle Adams smiling in front of the RespectAbility bannerI don’t wear glasses, at least physically speaking. My identity as an American Jew with learning disabilities acts like glasses though. It is as if my disability is a lens teaching me the power of perspective. I can apply my Judaism lens to better understand my disability, and my disability helps me understand Judaism. Together both teach me the true meaning of otherness.

You know how when you are little and everyone asks you what you want to be when you grow up? You probably stared flatly at that adult, eyes gleaming with optimism, saying something cool like police officer, doctor, rocket scientist, maybe even President. But, for me, dreaming big meant being a school bus driver. I thought it would play to my strengths of talking to people. [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile, By Guila Franklin Siegel

For this week’s Shabbat Smile, we are honored to share the poignant and personal story of disability advocate Guila Franklin Siegel, Associate Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC).

The ER geriatrician was matter-of-fact. “Your father has probably had mini-strokes. Usually we do a CT Scan to confirm the diagnosis but given your father’s cerebral palsy, we can’t immobilize his head to do the test. We likely have the right diagnosis, so we’ll discharge him with a prescription for blood thinners.”

Probably? Likely?

In one moment, my father’s dual identities as a nursing home resident and a person living with cerebral palsy crashed head-on. Even at age 82 my father was still vulnerable to receiving inadequate care because of his disability.

My father’s cerebral palsy rendered his hands virtually unusable and resulted in head and neck spasms and an unsteady gait.  Nevertheless, he graduated college and graduate school, spoke five languages, and had a long career as an urban planner.  He used a typewriter, and then a computer, with his toes.  He married my mother, also cerebral palsied, and had a daughter. He was intelligent, determined and had a wicked sense of humor. [continue reading…]

This is Keshet, by Abbie Weissberg

A man helping another man with a disability, leaning down to talk to him

Keshet, which means rainbow in Hebrew – has been my rainbow for the last 30+ years.  My name is Abbie Weisberg and I am the CEO of Keshet – [offering people with] special needs extraordinary opportunities. I often ask myself what life would have been like without the children, adults, families and staff here at Keshet? I simply cannot imagine this scenario, and feel lucky to have crossed paths with Keshet.

My journey began when I attended a Keshet banquet in 1990 when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I remember listening to a father share his story about how he knew something was “not quite right” with his baby daughter. I felt the palpable love in the room, mixed with warmth and magic. Right then, I knew that I had to be connected with Keshet. At that time, my connection was not as a significant donor; instead, I asked:  What hands-on contribution could I make to help?

I began teaching in Keshet’s Sunday School, where I led a classroom of 8-10 students with developmental disabilities. Sunday School technically included Jewish Learning. Having been raised as “one of those Jews” who went to shul only on High Holidays, I knew I had a lot to learn. Keshet sent me on mypersonal path of Jewish learning and living. [continue reading…]

Camp Ramah’s Tikvah Program Turns 50 – By Howard Blas

Howard Blas with a guest outside the Tikvah Village at Camp RamahIn considering great heroes, dates, places and milestones in the history of disabilities inclusion, one is more likely to think of Tom Harkin, ADA, and 1990 rather than think of Herb and Barbara Greenberg and Donny Adelman (z”l), 1970 and Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, New York. Yet, without the pioneers Greenberg and Adelman, there may have been no Jewish inclusive camping. The Ramah Camping Movement’s network of Tikvah (“Hope”) programs, which currently serves nearly 400 participants each summer in ten overnight camps, five day camps and Israel programs, is currently celebrating 50 years from that first memorable summer in 1970.

In the late 1960’s, the Greenbergs, two school teachers from Long Island, NY, proposed what seemed back then like a radical idea—including campers with disabilities in a typical Jewish overnight camp. Not surprisingly, they were met with institutional opposition from all sides: People worried about the financial impact; how the level of Hebrew in the camps would suffer; and that the “normal” campers would leave. Even the camp doctors felt ill-equipped to care for these campers.

One visionary director, Donny Adelman, saw the potential benefit not only for the campers with disabilities and their families, but for the entire camp community. Adelman felt that including campers with disabilities was consistent with the mission of Ramah –and Judaism. [continue reading…]

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