By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
When my husband Victor and I got married 17 years ago, we celebrated by setting up a family philanthropic fund. One of our key goals was to support good ideas, people and institutions in the Jewish community. While ours is not the largest of funds, we took it extremely seriously, and invested where we thought we could have an impact. Seven years later, when our oldest child wanted to go to Jewish day school, we found out that due to disability issues, no Jewish school would take our child. We had the same issues with Jewish camps, synagogues and more.
As a parent, and as a devoted member of the Jewish community, the rejection of our beloved child was devastating. I felt completely abandoned by the Jewish community. I literally cried. Even now sometimes my friends still tell me I need to let the anger and sadness go. But I channeled it into action.
I learned that we were not alone, and that scores of Jews were leaving the Jewish community because it was not inclusive of people with disabilities. While I knew that change would come too late for the benefit of our own children, I chose to educate myself and then fight to share knowledge on disability issues so others would not suffer the same discrimination and alienation that we faced. Thankfully, I found many partners through the Jewish Funders Network and otherwise.
But at the end of the day, as philanthropic gurus and menches Jeff Solomon and Charles Bronfman often say, “leaders lead.” I am deeply grateful that I found such a leader in Steve Rakitt, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Sadly for me and our community, he will leave that role. But the legacy of his vision and actions will last a long time. He brought in the wonderful Lisa Handelman to be the coach and implementer of inclusion, helping literally every agency that the Federation funds, as well as many others. They did a terrific free webinar on their work which you can find here.
Today in our area diverse Jews of all abilities find they are welcomed and respected in most of our local Jewish institutions. Not all of them are perfect, it is a journey. But the good will and openness is really here.
Each year we ask all our grantees to fill out a very short questionnaire about their levels of inclusion of people with disabilities. We fund many groups that are just starting the journey to inclusion, and track their progress. At this point, JFGW is a model for all. Thus, with their permission, below you will find their questionnaire. I hope every federation and foundation will read this and start their journey as well. I stand by, ready to help.
Jewish Federation of Greater Washington – 2016
1. Does your organization have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? If yes, please describe; if not, please indicate efforts underway to develop them.
Yes – Recognizing that we must be a welcoming and inclusive community for all by expanding the ways in which individuals are invited and encouraged to participate in Jewish life, inclusion is one of our six main areas of focus. We are an equal opportunity employer and designed our building to go beyond the basic ADA requirements. We have a full-time Community Inclusion Specialist, a robust disability inclusion committee, and work annually with an intern from the Jewish Foundations of Group Homes’ MOST program (a post high-school program for individuals with disabilities transitioning into the adult community). We intentionally plan our programs to be inclusive including a system for individuals to request accommodations and work with our partner agencies and congregations to advance disability inclusion. We fund partner agencies that provide direct services to individuals with disabilities. Federation’s commitment to include individuals with disabilities has and continues to be clearly articulated to management, staff and the public through our website, newsletters, Facebook etc. (Annual report and employment handbook included at the end of document)
2. Does your organization have a disability advisory committee/inclusion committee? If so, please describe; if not, please indicate efforts underway to develop one.
Yes – Our Disability Inclusion Committee consists of both lay and professional leaders, individuals with disabilities (almost 20%), parents and siblings of individuals with disabilities and teens with and without disabilities. The committee is currently working on projects to help our congregations and agencies advance inclusion, promote employment of individuals with disabilities and explore ways to increase inclusion within our schools. The committee also helps maintain an online crowd-sourced resource guide to provide information about services, programs and materials for individuals with disabilities and to advance inclusion.
3. Will the program or project include people with disabilities? If not, why not? If so, how do you plan to identify, reach, and welcome them?
Yes – Most, if not all, of our funded partner agencies serve people with disabilities and many provide inclusion programs. We collaborate with them regularly. Our partner agencies serve multiple populations with disabilities, including children, teens and adults. Some agencies have clients with disabilities on their boards. All our events flyers and materials include a welcoming message on inclusion and our community calendar can be searched to identify assessable venues.
4. Do other programs in your organization include people with disabilities? Please discuss.
Yes – The Jewish Federation provides funding to a network of agencies and schools in our local community and around the world. Many programs/services that the Federation funds enable these agencies to provide inclusive services to people with disabilities through accessible transportation; inclusion day and overnight camps; Jewish programming at residential programs; youth groups; and educator training to create inclusive classrooms.
Our programs are open to all members of the community, including those with disabilities. We include a welcoming statement on all invitations as well as on our website. It says: “…The Jewish Federation welcomes the participation of interfaith couples and families, and people of all abilities, backgrounds and sexual orientations.”
5. Describe the accessibility of your offices to people with physical disabilities.
Our office space was designed to not only meet all ADA requirements but also include upgrades such as an audio loop system to assist those with hearing disabilities. Currently the front door/public entrance is assessable and the path to all community used spaces is also accessible. Each floor has accessible restrooms for men and for women.
6. Describe the accessibility of your website to people with hearing and vision impairments.
We hired a private consulting firm to do a formal audit of the Federation’s websites. Based on this report, Federation updated our website including adding ALT text or Null text for decorative images, improving the color contrast ratio, install an accessible You Tube player, added bypass blocks to enable keyboards to skip over repetitive links, highlight links to improve visibility, labeled search and form fields so they can be identified by assistive technology, labeled control buttons and add grammar and HTML coding, including changing duplicate IDs to unique attributes in HTML. All videos produced by Federation are captioned. We are consistently working to improve the accessibility and usability of our website and we strive to follow the standards of WCAG 2.0 Level AA as our guide for design and function.
7. Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? If so, what are their jobs? Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions? If not, please describe all remedial efforts underway.
Yes – We have members of our staff who have self-identified with a disability including, our CEO, who has lived with a lifelong severe hearing impairment. Compensation and benefits for all are competitive with similarly-sized large city Federations around the Country. As mentioned above, we have an intern from the MOST program as part of our team.
8. Please describe how you educate your Board of Directors or Trustees about serving and partnering with people with disabilities.
We convey that all human beings are created in God’s image. Our Community Disabilities Inclusion Specialist provides thought leadership and guidance both within our organization and when working with our partner agencies. We emphasize the importance of creating culture change to advance inclusion, and often highlight the innovative community programs that serve people with disabilities. We are continually updating information on our website which includes resources for individuals with disabilities, community resources to advance inclusion, a list of current events and a newsletter/blog. We also believe in education through example. We have two members of our BOD who have visible disabilities.
Inclusion – One of the six critical needs
We must be a welcoming and inclusive community for all by expanding the way in which individuals are invited and encouraged to participate in Jewish life. It can be more challenging for people with disabilities, members of the LGBT community and those in interfaith relationships to feel included in the Jewish community. Creating Inclusive programing and services benefits all participants, and we are working to reduce barriers to participation.
Equal employment opportunity has been, and will continue to be, a fundamental principle at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where employment is based on personal capabilities and qualifications. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington considers all qualified employees and applicants without regard to race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital or family status, alienage or citizenship status, genetic predisposition or carrier status, veteran status or any other characteristic protected by federal, state, or local law.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is dyslexic and knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities. She is the President of www.respectabilityusa.org, a nonprofit fighting to end stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities and the co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund. She can be reached at jenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.