On the margins

How Jewish adults with disabilities are changing the religious landscape

In Short

Have you ever felt like an outsider within Jewish spaces?

As a young Jewish 30-something living in Los Angeles, I am not unique. With a population of 1.5 million Jews, California is bursting at its seams with a vast array of Jewish life. Having spent 30 years in Los Angeles, I have tasted everything on the menu when it comes to Yiddishkeit. From Aish Hatorah and Chabad to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Valley Beth Shalom, and from the LGBTQ Jewish community to Open Temple in Venice, one could say I have lapped up my Jewishness like your dog does her kibble. In the last 10 years, one constant has been missing. It keeps me up at night, and I am on a mission to not only bring awareness to its lacking, but to add my voice to a nuanced conversation. What is missing is twofold: A community for men and women on the margins in progressive Jewish spaces, as well as a place for young adults and singles outside of the standard organizations. 

We have all been on awful dates: The guy picks up the girl and takes her out to a loud bar with no food and overpriced alcohol. As a spiritual leader and community founder, more than one girl has come to me and told me that that was the first and last date that she went on with that gentleman. Now, let’s say we magnify our date example by 300 Jewish singles in a room the size of the apartment shared by the cast of “Friends,” with music blasting so loud you would have to step outside to talk. Event attendees have told me that they leave such events depressed and rejected, as well as confused about how this connects to being part of the chosen tribe. 

Have you ever felt like an outsider within Jewish spaces? Though this term has been overly used during the last many years, one area where it’s gotten almost no play is in the life of someone like myself.

Up until this point, I haven’t been completely upfront with you. Many people can tell you how they are the first to take certain leaps in life, how they are the nachshon of their community, jumping in to split the seas that make up their lives. I have a non-verbal learning disability. In May of 2021, I became the first graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California to receive my MA in Jewish studies. I was also the first young leader to bring change into the Jewish landscape for young adults and Jewish people who struggle on the margins. Once told that the best I could hope for in my life was to bag groceries, I graduated with five job offers and an incubator project that reached 2,000 people in three years!

My project, Back Engaged Now (BEN) stands for Ben, a young member of Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. who died by suicide in 2018. Looking around after his death, I started to see a need for an outreach type of Judaism that was to be a combination of Chabad and Base Hillel — a program that brought rabbis, chaplains, psychologists and clientele together to tackle life’s biggest questions. As a liberal Republican, do I fit in at certain temples? Why are we here? What makes a Jewish event Jewish? Does my community accept me and my autism? Is suicide preventable?For someone like myself, who had always felt like an outsider in Jewish spaces, I knew I needed to create my own community, and so I did. BEN ran on a small budget, but touched so many lives. 

By holding panels, connecting young people to rabbis and psychology from a progesssive Torah perspective, and by just being there when we were called, my team and I brought value into a space that was void of that value until we tackled it. 

After nearly four years of running this project, I learned two important things. Firstly, young 30-somethings are often the last to join, but we are among the most to question life and its search for meaning. Lastly, for Jewish adults with challenges, we have to become our own mentors and best advocates; no one else steps into the ring and too often, we lead with our labels instead of our hearts. 

As famed writer Sophocles once asked, “Which law is greater, God or man’s?” In my view, the  law of man, post-pandemic, is to carry on as we did before. God’s law, however, says we need to make radical change in order to go from a Jewish community that is merely surviving to one that is thriving. I know which law I would follow; being that my Jewish practice is about engaging with self and others. In the end, is there really a question? 

Jonah Sanderson lives in Charlotte North Carolina and works as a resident chaplain at Caromont Regional Medical Center. He has his MA from the AJRCA and has plans to pursue the progressive Rabbinate.