Faith After Exclusion: on Jewish Disability Awareness Month

This is a guest post by Shelly Christensen, MA, Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis. Shelly is also the author of the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a time to unite Jewish communities and organizations for the purpose of raising awareness and supporting meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Jewish life.

It is my hope that, in reading this and three more stories (one each week in February), you will gain understanding of the need for inclusion in our community.

Beth was born with spina bifida, and she walks with a very pronounced limp. When it was time to prepare for her Bat Mitzvah, she says her parents “were worried I would make a fool of myself,” and the Board of Directors at her synagogue was unsupportive, not wanting to put a face to physical disabilities. Only her rabbi and Bat Mitzvah tutor supported her. “I knew I could do it,” she says. “I wish everyone else around me at the time believed I could do it.”

This memory of being excluded doesn’t stop Beth from chairing her synagogue’s inclusion committee today. It makes her more determined than ever to see that no other children should endure the rejection that she did. She does this work with the full commitment of her rabbis, the synagogue professional staff and the lay leadership.

Beth’s involvement in her synagogue is representative of the new Jewish community. People with disabilities are finding their way to a congregation of their choosing, and are becoming active and involved members.

I marvel at the wonder in which many people who have disabilities are embracing their newfound relationship with institutional Judaism. It means everything in the world to them. And it means a lot to the congregation.

Our goal should be to live in a Jewish community where there is no “them vs. us.” We are all “us.” We must commit to the inclusion of all Jews. In Torah we have the examples to take a stand for what is right. Like our ancestors, we may not always say or do the right thing, but we make those honest and well-intentioned efforts. Like Moses, we have the ability to lead by example, by our words, and by our actions.

NEXT WEEK: The principles of inclusion that your group, organization, or congregation can follow.
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For more information about Jewish Disability Awareness Month, or for a calendar of the month’s events, go to www.jfcsmpls.org.

Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS) offers information and resources to support Jews with disabilities and their families. The Inclusion Program coordinates community-wide efforts to raise awareness, provide consultation and help Jewish organizations understand how to overcome barriers to facilitate their meaningful participation and involvement for all people. For more information, contact Shelly at 952-542-4838 or schristensen@jfcsmpls.org.

JFCS also offers Caring Connections, a program that provides opportunities for Jewish adults with developmental disabilities to connect with their faith community and take part in Jewish life and learn about holidays and traditions. Caring Connections is a joint effort of JFCS, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, the St. Paul JCC, and the Sabes JCC.

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2 comments

  1. It makes sad to read that some parents could be unsupportive of their children in the face of such an important passage as a bat-mitzvah for the reason of how *they* see themselves in the eyes of the community.

    I feel very fortunate that I belong to a very inclusive congregation and I can witness that it doesn’t make a difference only for my family but for the entire congregation who benefit from what a different person can bring to them, in *chessed* and many other Jewish values.

    Jacob our Patriarch was limping after his fight with the angel…

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