Community: A Gift for the Jewish Future

[This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.]

by William C. Daroff

Having just finished celebrating Hanukkah, we spent eight days opening gifts from loved ones as we commemorated the rededication of the Holy Temple. While most of those gifts to our children were likely the newest toys and electronics, gifts can come in many forms: such as a good deed, a close friendship, or a strong community.

Community, particularly in the digital era, is an undervalued and misunderstood concept. People find community as locally as their building or neighborhood and as globally as through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Much can be learned from the much-discussed Pew Study on American Jewish life, but one key finding is that we need to engage more people in Jewish life, particularly younger Jews. While we are focusing on this critical challenge, we must not forget there are many who, for generations, have sought to be engaged and welcomed, but instead have been excluded or ignored, whether intentionally or not: people among us with disabilities.

Nearly one in five Americans has a disability. Despite the fact that we have raised awareness of disability issues and made progress for disability rights, those with disabilities still face tremendous challenges practicing their faith and participating in their community.

Twenty percent of the Jewish community (as well as their families, friends, and loved ones) is not being welcomed into our institutions and organizations. It could be as simple as a Federation building lacks a wheelchair ramp, or a camp doesn’t have a program for a child with an intellectual disability, or a day school doesn’t have teachers trained to teach a child on the Autism spectrum, or a synagogue doesn’t have a sign language interpreter or braille prayer book. By allowing these barriers to exist, we are failing those who so strongly want to engage.

Many Jewish communities observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month each February, and a core focus of this observance is on inclusion. Inclusion means ensuring everyone can access Jewish institutions and activities, and understanding that each one of us has a role to play so that all people are welcome and can participate meaningfully. To accomplish this, we must do whatever we can to adapt our programming and institutions to ensure everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

How do we do this? We start by forming committees and task forces to discuss the key issues and find leadership and resources to address them. It then means building the ramp, hiring the teacher who can work with students of all abilities, finding a sign language interpreter for services, printing the braille prayer books, building wheelchair-accessible bunks at the day camp, renovating bathrooms so anyone can use them, and hiring someone with a disability to fill the next job opening.

It also means lay leadership engaging professional leadership at Federations and other institutions to express that this is a real priority, and boards and budget committees making this a priority in their allocations process. It means encouraging your neighbor, who for too long has stayed home for Shabbat, to join you at synagogue. But before doing that, it means speaking with your congregational leadership to make sure they know that you and others want the bima to be accessible for anyone, and making sure it gets done. It means literally opening the door for someone and figuratively welcoming them back into our community.

Many Federations and other institutions and organizations have a long history of working to promote inclusion within their communities, but far too many do not. Those that do, and continue to excel at it, should be held up and praised. But these shining examples can no longer be the exception; they should be, and must be, the standard that we expect from every organization in every community.

Hanukkah may be over, but it’s never too late to give someone a gift. Let’s rededicate ourselves, our organizations and our institutions towards ensuring everyone has the gift of being a part of their local, and our global, Jewish community.

William C. Daroff is the Senior Vice President for Public Policy & Director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. Follow him on twitter at @Daroff