February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Google these words and you will be pleased to get 53,300 hits! Nearly every link encourages readers (and organization and synagogues) to do such admirable things as start an inclusion committee, offer programs and events on disability awareness, and dedicate a Shabbat to inclusion and to the contributions of people with disabilities.
Through my work as the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, and as a teacher of Jewish Studies/bar and bat mitzvah for children and young adults with a range of special needs, I am very aware of Jews of all ages with disabilities. I am also aware of their sometimes amazing ABILITIES. Tikvah campers routinely lead birkat hamazon and Friday night davening for the entire camp, they put on a play, travel to Israel and participate in a weekly “Shabbos Is Calling” video conference. Campers take part in more than a dozen Special Olympics sports, some climb the Alpine Tower in seconds, and one camper (with Down Syndrome) even tutored a neurotypical peer for his bar mitzvah (many years later, that appreciative bar mitzvah student became a counselor in our Tikvah Program!).
Bar Mitzvah students with disabilities have delivered profound divrei torah, read the Torah and Haftarah, and lead the congregation in davening. Others moved the congregation by exhibiting their deep love of Judaism—unable to speak, they operated Power Point presentations, used a Dynavox Dynamo augmented communication device, or lovingly clutched the torah; or they displayed a model of the portable Tabernacle which they had carefully constructed.
Jewish Disability Awareness Month is a time to acknowledge those with a range of both disabilities and abilities, and those who work as tireless advocates on their behalf.
I would like to introduce a few people and organizations making a difference. There are truly hundreds of examples. Please add yours by commenting on the blog!
Richard Bernstein: a marathoner and Iron Man Triathlete, and a diability rights attorney in Detroit—who happens to be blind from birth
Aaron Rudolph: a former Tikvah camper and staff member who is one of many young adults with special needs hired by Walgreens to work in one of their many distribution centers (Walgreens is a company with an amazing policy of hiring adults with special needs). Aaron is an amazing worker!
Eytan Nisinzweig: also a former Tikvah camper, is a young man with autism who is a very talented piano player and a prolific artist of very engaging drawings. His family has taken his art work and put them on T-shirts and notecards—check out his impressive website!
Jodi Samuels: founded Jewish International Connection of New York (JICNY), a Jewish outreach program for international Jews living in the metropolitan New York City area. She has also been a tireless advocate for daughter, Caila, who has Down Syndrome. Jodi and her and her husband, Gavin, have worked hard to create Jewish educational opportunities for Caila and other children with special needs in Manhattan
Jay Ruderman and the Ruderman Family Foundation have been helping people with special needs in the Boston area, and in Israel, and they have been making a tremendous impact in the world of Jewish special needs. Jay recently organized Advance, the first-ever international Jewish funders conference on special needs. As a result, 13 foundations have recently joined forces “to improve the treatment of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and to raise awareness of their needs” (see recent Jerusalem Post article: http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=206149)
Reelabilities Film Festival is a film festival, held throughout New York area, dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities. If you are in NY from February 3-8, 2011, join me at the festival!