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Two Sides of the Same Coin – Making Inclusion a Reality Year Round

Consider this situation – you enter a store looking to purchase an item.  Something you have done hundreds of times before.  What happens?  You find the item and then head for the cash register to purchase it.  Or, maybe you cannot find the item and need assistance.  A sales clerk helps you with your purchase and you go on about your day.  Now what happens if you have a disability?    Are there assumptions made about your abilities to choose and purchase the item, people who stare at you or even someone who refuses to provide service for you?  Do you get the help you need?

This was the scenario that Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), experienced after she went from a being a typically able person to experiencing a severe car accident and left afterwards with multiple cognitive and physical challenges.  As she remarked, despite her challenges, she “didn’t forget how to spend money” but the way she was treated changed dramatically.  Unfortunately, these types of situations happen every day and sometimes, people with disabilities don’t even know their rights to challenge the status quo. 

Now that February and Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month has come to a close, it is all the more important that we – as a people and as a community – do not close our eyes to the continued needs of those with special needs.  That is why responding to and including those with disabilities at every level of our community is a top priority for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, both in our work in Los Angeles and our work in Israel year round. 

Whether it is through meaningful employment opportunities, participating in synagogue life, housing in our community, or contributing towards our community’s understanding of Jewish enrichment and spirituality, all people deserve and have the right to be equal members with equal access to our society.  So it is with a sense of heightened awareness and responsibility that we wanted to highlight two recent initiatives during February that demonstrate how we proactively help all members of our community succeed and reach their full potential in life.

The first initiative was a Self-Advocacy Conference organized by Beit Issie Shapiro and Israel Elwyn which recently took place in Jerusalem a few weeks ago.  These two extraordinary institutions have partnered over the past year to develop a ground breaking program that empowers people with special needs across Israel by giving them the tools, confidence, and support to advocate for themselves effectively.   

The focus of this conference, one in a series of conferences throughout the year, was employment and challenges in the workplace.  The participants had an opportunity to share their experiences, aspirations, and frustrations and take part in workshops led by leading activists in the field.  Government officials were also present to discuss the rights of people with special needs in Israel and to learn about the challenges facing those who were present.  Yoav Kreim, one of the facilitators and a self-advocate for over 20 years, commented that this was a chance for the “weaker voices in the population to be heard.”

We are pleased that the Ruderman Family Foundation joined Federation in partnering with this critical and ongoing effort to equip those with special needs with the tools to live independently and the support they need to live proudly and securely. 

The second initiative was a workshop that took place in Los Angeles shortly thereafter.  Addressing the fact that it is often burdensome for individuals with disabilities and their families to always be advocating and trying to promote change on their own, this workshop was geared towards professionals.  The first part of the program featured Rabbi Lynne Landsberg from the RAC who described her journey in advocating for people who needed help and support to then becoming one of these individuals after a traumatic brain injury.  She said that welcoming people with disabilities is not a social action item or something on a to-do list but something that can and does benefit everyone.  She cited the example of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a piece of legislation she helped to pass, which opened up access and possibilities not just to people with disabilities but others as well – such as parents who were able to benefit from ramps to enter buildings with a stroller. 

We recognize that both professionals and individuals need to use their voices in promoting inclusion and advocating for change.  Thus, the second part of the program featured Elaine Hall and Josh Taff, two veteran professionals who helped us understand the developmental stages of those with disabilities and how to best support them and their families.

The bottom line for both conferences and for working to create inclusive communities is that change has to start with transforming attitudes.  It can be through empowering a young adult with a disability to know their rights and be able to advocate for their needs or through an empowered professional to demand that accessibility and inclusion are not just a priority for families with disabilities but for all those involved with an organization or synagogue.  In Los Angeles and in Israel, our goal is one and the same – to create inclusive Jewish communities that value each member of our society. 

Our tradition teaches us “al tifrosh min hatzibor – do not separate yourself from the community.”  As Rabbi Lynne Landsberg taught us, this commandment goes beyond just actively engaging ourselves in the community, but also removing any barriers that would cause others to separate themselves.  Only in this way, will we truly fulfill the true meaning behind the commandment – both in February during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and year round. 

Aaron Goldberg is the Senior VP, Israel and Director, Israel Office in Jerusalem and can be contacted at agoldberg@jewishla.org.il.  Adynna Swarz is the Director, Caring for Jews in Need in Los Angeles and can be contacted at aswarz@jewishla.org.

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