Beyond February: Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Is Not Over Yet

Hundreds of Jewish organizations and communities in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and around the world have wholeheartedly embraced JDAIM. JDAIM began in 2009 in Minneapolis and three other communities to create a unified effort to raise awareness that people with disabilities, mental health conditions, and those who love them want what everyone else wants: To belong as full participants in Jewish life.

As the co-founder of JDAIM, I’ve spoken in Jewish communities across North America for most of February. I’ve given sermons, led conferences and trainings, and met with people with lived experiences of disability and mental health conditions, community professionals, and parents. I’ve addressed a number of concerns including employment, housing, social inclusion, and Jewish community participation.

JDAIM is a catalyst for changes in attitudes, understanding, and practices. Judging by the incredible grassroots growth of JDAIM, synagogues, schools, community centers, federations and many other Jewish organizations looking for ways to remove obstacles to participation. Programming during JDAIM is a catalyst for change, educating the broader Jewish community that roughly 20% of us live with a disability or mental health condition. It binds us all together, people with disabilities and those without, that we all are created “B’tzelem Elohim,” in God’s image. This is the basis for belonging and inclusion.

At all my programs, I ask participants to write down three things that give them a sense of belonging in their Jewish lives. They love to share them with the rest of the group.

But then I go around the room randomly taking their answers away, telling them that it doesn’t matter that these are important things — I’m taking them away and that’s that.

Participants always get miffed with me during this part of the activity. No one makes eye contact.  They comment, “I was afraid you were going to take my sense of belonging away!” “Who are you to take these away from me?”  “I really felt ignored when you blew me off and just grabbed my three things away.”

Pause. Think about what gives you a sense of belonging in your Jewish life. For many of us, it’s being in a community where we share our gifts and strengths, find comfort in times of need, celebrate in times of joy, study Torah, daven on Shabbat, and build relationships with other Jews.

People living with a disability or a mental health condition must be given the same opportunities to express what gives them a sense of belonging and how they want to participate.

Belonging is the heartbeat of inclusion. When the entire Jewish community understands that belonging is not the privilege of some members of the community, but the right of all members of the community, we won’t need a month devoted to awareness, acceptance, and inclusion.

JDAIM is the beginning of our journey to create opportunities with people with disabilities and mental health conditions to flourish.

One day JDAIM can be retired because it has succeeded in creating enduring actions that promote belonging and inclusion for all Jews. A Midrash reminds us why we must bring about the day when people with disabilities and mental health conditions are living satisfying and personally meaningful Jewish lives that give them that precious sense of belonging.

A procession of angels passes before each person

And the heralds go before them, saying

”Make way for the image of God.”

Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:4

Shelly Christensen, MA, is an international speaker, author and leader in the faith community inclusion movement. She directed the award-winning Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities at JFCS for 13 years. Shelly has contributed to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, Yachad, Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative, Jewish Federations of North America, and Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. She is a co-founder and organizer of JDAIM.

Her new book, From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, is a comprehensive resource for congregations and other faith-based organizations. Drawing on her extensive personal and professional experiences, Shelly provides an organized approach to create organizations that are more than places to be included—they are places to belong.