By Meredith Polsky
I’m choosing to be thankful.
Maybe it’s the season, or maybe with so much heartache around us, I need to recognize the good in the world. Maybe after 20 years in the field of Jewish disability inclusion, I am learning that sometimes it helps to focus on the details rather than on the looming bigger picture.
I spend a lot of time wondering why Jewish disability inclusion remains on the margins. It’s an enigma to me – shouldn’t everyone care about this issue as much as I do? Shouldn’t we all see clearly the injustice of choosing who can and cannot be woven into the fabric of Jewish life? Shouldn’t all Jewish communities mirror the overall population, where 1 in 5 people have some form of disability?
But today, I’m setting these questions aside (even if just momentarily) and focusing my energy elsewhere. In the past 2 weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend two different bar mitzvah ceremonies, at 2 different synagogues, of children who have had the benefit of a Jewish education informed by Matan. Both with autism, with limited conversational speech and various other learning challenges, Ben and Evan exhibited unparalleled joy and pride in their accomplishments.
Surrounded by family, friends, teachers, and clergy who get it, they each led the congregation in prayer, read from the Torah, had an aliyah and talked about what the milestone meant to them (one in a perfectly rendered British accent!). I feel so incredibly lucky to know these boys and their families – not because they’re some sort of “inspiration” or because their celebration is more “meaningful” than children who learn typically (though I will note that they love attending religious school in a way that I don’t often witness among more typical students); but because my community – my world – would not feel complete without them.
Between the 2 week span of these b’nai mitzvah, I was in LA training early childhood educators in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I was in New York with cohort 9 of The Matan Institute for Education and Youth Directors, I was at the Covenant Foundation Awards dinner, and I was at a secular education conference in Washington, DC. And in each of these places, I noticed how lucky I was to be surrounded by people who value inclusion. There’s a certain gravitational pull, a feeling that I have found “my people” – an eager nursery school teacher who had never before learned to think about challenging behavior as communication; a youth director who thinks beyond “buddy programs” for the first time; mentors who paved the way in this field long before I came along; even professionals sitting at a booth in an expo hall who turn out to have a passion for inclusion.
When I focus on the details, I think anyone should be envious of people who get to work in Jewish disability inclusion, surrounded by the most impressive and dedicated teachers, counselors, administrators, parents and children. We remain small but mighty – constantly expanding our reach in order to embolden more Jewish disability inclusion advocates and enthusiasts.
Tomorrow, I’ll dive deeper into understanding how I can help the rest of the Jewish community recognize – and partner on – the crucial work of inclusion; how I can help ensure that every community has the opportunity to meet, welcome, educate and befriend individuals of all different abilities.
But today I am thankful. I am one of the lucky ones.
Meredith Polsky is the National Director of Institutes and Training at Matan, a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers Jewish leaders, educators, and communities to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs.