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Our Journey, Your Journey
By Guest blogger Michelle K. Wolf:
Judaism at its essence is about journeys—first Abraham who left his birthplace at God’s instruction to travel to Canaan, Joseph who involuntarily ends up in Egypt, and then the ultimate Biblical journey of leaving Egypt, the Exodus.
Our family has been on an unplanned journey. Ever since our second child, Danny, was diagnosed with developmental delays at 13 months, we have navigated medical specialists, a wide range of therapists, and special education in the public schools, and at the same time, tried to provide Danny with a similar level of positive Jewish experiences that his typically-developing older sister enjoyed.
Along the way, we have met some amazing fellow travelers who have become close friends, and many kind and compassionate rabbis, Jewish educators and camp directors. Danny benefits from a warm and accepting synagogue community, has received a good Jewish education, had a Bar Mitzvah, and even spent a month at Camp Ramah California last summer. But more often than not, it feels like these professionals are making an exception for us, rather than creating a real change in how our Jewish institutions and organizations interact and engage Jews with disabilities. And as grateful as I am for Danny being included, I can’t stop thinking about all those Jewish families raising a child with special needs who have a more complicated family situation, or whose affinity to the Jewish community is marginal at best.
My vision for true inclusion in the Jewish community is that children, teens and adults with all types of disabilities become part of the template for every facet of organized Jewish life, so that every synagogue would have an Inclusion Committee, and that every religious school and day school would not just provide accommodations, but would actively recruit families raising children with special needs.
One of the biggest frustrations I have encountered is that all too often it is the parents of children with special needs who are the ones expected to be the advocates in Jewish settings. Without parents pushing for inclusion, it doesn’t happen. And, if our children have more severe disabilities, we are usually expected to pay the extra costs of including our children such as extra aides or shadows. This needs to change. If we are truly a community, then shouldn’t we be sharing the extra costs between everyone?
Looking down the road to my perfect world, I see the Jewish community fully embracing all persons with special needs. A higher tolerance for odd behavior, universal access with ramps, and employees with disabilities would be the norm in every Jewish venue. Every synagogue Shabbat bulletin would include the universal symbol for disabilities and state in bold lettering: “We warmly welcome persons with disabilities and will provide accommodations to the maximum extent possible.”
Until that day, I can only dream and ask you to please come with us on our journey.
Michelle K. Wolf is a special-needs parent advocate and nonprofit professional who has worked in the governmental and nonprofit sectors for the past 25 years. She is the co-founder of Federation's HaMercaz (www.hamercaz.org) and has a weekly blog about Jews with special needs for the Jewish Journal. Inclusion Awareness Month (I.A.M.) is the Los Angeles Jewish community effort headed by Federation to raise awareness about welcoming all people, regardless of ability or disability.