When young Jews peer inside at the current state of our institutions, do they see the faces of tomorrow or the faces of yesterday? Are they witnessing a community that is fully accepting, tolerant and demands everyone’s fair share of the communal pie? Or are the old ways, the barriers and fences, still firmly staked in the ground, preventing lasting change?
By Jay Ruderman
When I was in elementary school in Boston, our classroom was pretty homogenous. Children in wheelchairs, children with severe learning and other disabilities were not classmates and did not roam the halls with me. Kids with severe ADHD were labeled as having “ants in their pants” and were routinely separated from the classroom, given detention and other punishments as antiquated forms of behavior modification.
Thankfully, our kids are growing up in a completely different environment.
Go to most public schools today and you will see children with disabilities learning alongside their typically-developing peers. Educators have proven that inclusive learning environments benefit everyone and help break down barriers. Everyone is seen as equal, everyone has a place in the classroom.
Inclusive education leads young adults to demand social justice and equal rights when they enter university and the workforce. They are used to an inclusive environment and see no reason why this should not be the norm. To them, disability is not something to be hidden. They accept a person for who they are and will work to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to move forward.
As a philanthropist dedicated to social change, I take great pride in our community being at the forefront of major civil rights and social justice campaigns. We have demanded change over and over and succeeded where others failed. Fellow Jews have stood with the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, those who were trampled on by the establishment and we have shouted “Enough!” We have given a voice to those who lived so long without one.
Our foundation advocates and vigorously pursues the full inclusion of people with disabilities into our synagogues, schools, summer camps, workplaces, JCC’s, community organizations and more. We work with lay leaders, self-advocates, experts, parents, small and large organizations in order to ensure that 2.4 million Jews worldwide are fully functioning members of ALL our community has to offer.
Unlike my upbringing, it seems to me that young Jews today have grown up differently. Many of them attended schools and camps where inclusion was the norm. Disability is not a barrier to friendship; no barriers need exist. They accept people for who they are.
I look at our young leaders and see what powerful catalysts for change they can become. They do not accept no for an answer. They are undaunted by societal norms they consider unfair or immoral – if it should be changed, they will use every platform (social or other) at their disposal to make it happen.
A great portion of Jewish philanthropy is directed at these young leaders of tomorrow. We work to keep them in the framework of Jewish living, form programs to try and cement their commitment to the future of our people.
The question is: When young Jews peer inside at the current state of our institutions, do they see the faces of tomorrow or the faces of yesterday? Are they witnessing a community that is fully accepting, tolerant and demands everyone’s fair share of the communal pie? Or are the old ways, the barriers and fences, still firmly staked in the ground, preventing lasting change?
Philanthropy can only change so much. Change also comes from the bottom-up. As more and more of our community demands it, more and more of our institutions will have no choice but to acquiesce and change. It is a matter of survival.
In Leviticus, the Torah tells us, “One should not curse the deaf person nor place a stumbling block in front of the blind individual.” (19:14) Four verses later we are implored to “love your friend as yourself.” Both verses end with the words “For I am God.” The implication is that our interactions with each other are based on the fact that we are created in the image of God- equal. Though we may look different, act different, talk different, we are one and the same.
Our community has always looked forward towards a brighter future. To maintain our place as leaders, as voices for change, our community needs to match the demands we are making of society as a whole. Otherwise we will be viewed as hypocrites and has-beens.
Though our community may be heterogeneous in its parts, we are all one. This is the message our young generation carries with them and it is time that we all heed this message of equality and fairness. The faces of tomorrow demand it.
This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community. This series coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness Month.