A Fair and Flourishing Community

[This post is the 1st in a series which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.]

by Jay Ruderman

Fair (adj.) – treating people equally without favoritism or discrimination.
Flourishing (adj.) – thriving

Around the globe, the Jewish community is thriving. New organizations, schools, community centers, synagogues and summer camps open their doors in an effort to include everyone in communal life and engage them in decisions affecting the ‘klal’ (community). Innovative projects and collaborative programs further strengthen each community and expand the number of people who become involved.

Notice that I said that our community is thriving but I did not mention fair. Our community may be getting stronger and yet simultaneously, we are weaker. We want everyone to join, participate in communal events and contribute to the overall effort. Unfortunately, the largest minority group among us is sometimes discriminated against and not included with the klal.

But that reality is changing.

Our society has quickly developed to become more inclusive than it has been in the past. We see all sorts of disenfranchised groups that now have a place in the public sphere. It’s time for the Jewish community to catch up and to catch up quickly to the trends in our society.

A more inclusive society will be a more attractive one to the very people that we’re trying to engage in Jewish life. People will not be attracted an exclusionary, sanitized Jewish community. They want to be part of a Jewish community that mirrors real life. And that means that people with disabilities need to have a seat at the table, like everyone else.

Each of us has a personal connection to disability or we will: It is the only minority group that all of us have the potential and likelihood to join at some point in our lives. How would you feel if you were always outside, looking in at everyone else?

Our foundation advocates for and advances the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the Jewish community, a community which makes up approximately 20% of the population. We support programs and partner with schools, synagogues, large and small Jewish organizations. We work to help people with disabilities find employment opportunities, become self-advocates, move towards independent living and much more. This is a large undertaking which the entire community needs to get behind.

Thankfully, we are seeing movement towards a more inclusive Jewish community.

Last month, when the Slingshot Guide was released, it included for the first time a Disabilities and Inclusion Supplement. Eighteen organizations across the U.S. were recognized for their excellence in inclusion. Winners included summer camps, day school and educational initiatives, JCC’s and federations and organizations that empower people with disabilities. One of the winners was an accessible mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) and another winner was a bakery that prepares people with disabilities to join the workforce. I am convinced that this is the beginning of a trend, the start of the creation of a truly fair and flourishing Jewish community. I am hopeful that soon there will be no need for a separate supplement; all the Slingshot winners will be inclusive.

When I reflect upon our successes as a community, I am amazed at how Jews have stood at the forefront of the social justice movement. We insisted on an inclusive society in the past and today’s generation is no different. Young Jews fly around the world to participate in Tikkun Olam initiatives and they advocate and are active in creating a fair society for everyone.

Yet our own community has not met the standards we have demanded for others. The Jewish community is still not as inclusive as it should be. Many programs are dedicated to Jewish continuity – yet continuity is not achievable if a great portion of our people is not accepted because they have a disability.

This post is the first in a series of posts meant to look at different aspects of our community, how inclusive we are and what can still be done. My hope is to galvanize people to take action, to begin to demand and accept the full inclusion of people with disabilities into the klal. When this is accomplished, we will have created a fair and flourishing Jewish community.

Our foundation’s motto is: Including each, Strengthening all. The time is now.

Jay Ruderman is the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation.