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Jewish Inclusion

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…]

Reasonable Accommodations are a Torah Value – By Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

This week’s Shabbat Smile was written by Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, the first ordained female rabbi who is blind.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman wearing a purple shirt inside a synagogue with the background blurred.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

As a rabbi and someone who is blind, I have a unique view of Moses (Moshe) and how G-d treated him. In The Book of Exodus, when we are introduced to Moshe, many interpret that he had a speech disability. In Exodus 4:10-16, G-d informs Moshe that he will lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt—from slavery to freedom. Moshe balks. He asks, “Who am I to lead this people? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Perhaps Moshe felt self-conscious, unable to fully grasp his own potential and greatness. Perhaps he was not feeling up to the task for any number of reasons.

G-d’s powerful response addressed Moshe’s most obvious fear. Exodus 4:11-12, we hear G-d’s bellowing statement on disability: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him speechless or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.”

I am often asked about the theology in this passage. Truthfully, for many years, I understood this passage quite negatively. Does G-d countenance ableism and institutionalized oppression that many people with disabilities encounter daily? How can I connect to a G-d who made me as I am, in a world that presents so many barriers for people with disabilities? Is that not a punishing theology? [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile – Terumah by Neil Jacobson

This week’s Shabbat Smile was written by our board member Neil Jacobson to be delivered as a drash at his congregation.

Neil Jacobson sitting at his computer and smiling he has a beard and is wearing glasses color photo

Neil Jacobson

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah. It describes how God tells the people how God wants the Temple to be built. God gives very detailed instructions. Some tasks are to be done by everyone, and some are to be done by some people. Everyone had to participate.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Temple Sinai’s Access Committee chose ‘Caregiving and Care-receiving’ as the theme—a challenge many congregants will need to address at some stage in their lives.

Transitioning to becoming more disabled at the age of 59 was surprisingly difficult. As most of you know, I have always had significant disabilities due to Cerebral Palsy. I use a powered wheelchair. My speech is hard to understand. I never sit upright in my chair. I always needed assistance in preparing food and cutting it up. My wife, Denise, has similar disabilities to mine. In the 35 years that we’ve been married, we’ve always needed attendants about 10 hours a week for cooking and cleaning. When David, our son, was a baby we hired help to help feed and bathe him. [continue reading…]

Poll: Most California Jews Don’t Know Any Rabbis or Staff with Disabilities

Mental health conditions listed as most common disability in Jewish community

Los Angeles, California, Jan. 9 – More than 4000 respondents participated in a RespectAbility survey focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities in America. This includes 183 Jews with disabilities in California and additional 79 with no disability connection in the state. Fully 104 of the respondents reported that they are served by the Jewish Federation of Greater LA. Nationally the poll includes more than 900 Jews who self-disclose that they are a person with a disability.

Text: Do you know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at your own faith based institutions? Pie chart with results.

Only 17% of Jewish respondents with disabilities in California know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at their synagogue.

The Jewish respondents with disabilities in California and across the nation point to a lack of people with disabilities in leadership roles as clergy or staff at Jewish institutions. They also do not fully feel welcomed to serve as leaders in lay positions in the Jewish community either. Only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities know of a person with a disability in a leadership position. Only 6 percent of the California Jews with no disability connection who were polled know of a person with a disability in leadership. Nationally it is slightly higher at nearly 10 percent. Only 13 percent of California Jews in the disability community answer “yes” that they “feel that people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on the boards and committees of your faith-based institutions.” This is also five points lower than the national results of 18 percent.

Said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, RespectAbility’s president who herself is dyslexic, “If you see it, you can be it – and today Jews with disabilities need more role models with disabilities in leadership in the Jewish community. Many also want to be recruited, trained and empowered to make the Jewish community stronger, just like anyone else.” [continue reading…]

Poll: Most D.C.-area Jews Don’t Know Any Rabbis or Staff with Disabilities

Concerns High on Access to Healthcare, Education, Jobs, Fighting Stigmas and Jewish Inclusion

Washington, D.C., January 7, 2019 – More than 4000 respondents participated in a RespectAbility survey focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities in America. This includes 133 Jews in the disability community in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, and an additional 42 with no disability connection in this region. More than 900 Jews who self-disclose they are a person with a disability participated in the study overall.

Text: Do you know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at your own faith based institutions? Pie chart with results.

59% of Jewish D.C.-area respondents with disabilities do not know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at their synagogue.

The Jewish respondents with disabilities in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) region and across the nation point to a lack of people with disabilities in leadership roles as Rabbis, cantors or staff at Jewish institutions. While overall things are improving significantly in terms of access and inclusion for Jews with disabilities in the DMV, they also do not yet fully feel welcomed to serve as leaders in lay positions in the Jewish community. Only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities know of a person with a disability in a leadership position. Nationally fewer than 10 percent of Jews with no disability connection know of a person with a disability in leadership. Only 17 percent of area Jews in the disability community answer “yes” that they “feel that people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on the boards and committees of your faith-based institutions,” which is in line with the national results at 18 percent.

Said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, “If you see it, you can be it – and today Jews with disabilities need more role models with disabilities in leadership in the Jewish community. Many also want to be recruited, trained and empowered to make the Jewish community stronger, just like anyone else.” [continue reading…]

Poll: Most NY Jews Don’t Know Any Rabbis or Staff with Disabilities

New York Jewish Community on Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities Shows Concerns on Access to Healthcare, Education, Jobs, Fighting Stigmas and Jewish Inclusion

Washington, D.C., Dec. 21 – More than 4000 respondents participated in a RespectAbility survey focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities in America. This includes more than 900 individuals who self-disclose that they are a person with a disability. This includes 172 Jews in the disability community in New York, and an additional 75 with no disability connection.

Text: Do you know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at your own faith based institutions? Pie chart with results.

Only 15% of Jewish New York respondents with disabilities know of any clergy or staff with disabilities at their synagogue.

The Jewish respondents with disabilities in New York and across the nation point to a lack of people with disabilities in leadership roles as clergy or staff at Jewish institutions. They also do not fully feel welcomed to serve as leaders in lay positions in the Jewish community. Only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities know of a person with a disability in a leadership position. Only seven percent of the New York Jews with no disability connection who were polled know of a person with a disability in leadership. Nationally it is slightly higher at nearly 10 percent. Only 12 percent of New York Jews in the disability community answer “yes” that they “feel that people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on the boards and committees of your faith-based institutions.” This is also six points lower than the national results of 18 percent.

Said Shelley Cohen, co-founder of RespectAbility and leader of the Jewish Inclusion Project, “If you see it, you can be it – and today Jews with disabilities need more role models with disabilities in leadership in the Jewish community. Many also want to be recruited, trained and empowered to make the Jewish community stronger, just like anyone else.” [continue reading…]

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