Inclusion in the Jewish Community

[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 Steven M. Eidelman

There is a growing movement in the Jewish community to include Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life, driven by the desires of families with children of all ages, people with disabilities themselves, professionals, advocates and private philanthropy. That’s the good news. The bad news is that segregation in some cases is increasing, not decreasing. New segregated schools, housing complexes and other forms of segregation are still being developed as new ideas, as inclusion. They are not.

Inclusion is part values and attitude, part law, part skillset and part funding. Values and attitudes are perhaps the most challenging thing to change of the four.

To fully include people with disabilities, our communities must see them as valued participants. Not as recipients of Tzedek (justice), nor as part of Tikun Olam (healing the world), but as members of a community, valued for whatever contributions they make. All people have gifts and talents and have something to contribute to the strengthening of the Jewish community worldwide. Exclusion and segregation weaken our community and put families at risk of disengaging from their community.

In the US, we have numerous laws and Supreme Court rulings on inclusion. Whether the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Olmstead Supreme Court ruling, the Developmental Disabilities Act and more, all begin with the premise that disability is a normal part of the human condition. In Canada, there is the Canadians with Disabilities Act. Israel has it Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law and, as with all laws, enforcement and meeting the intent of the law are not pure. Worldwide we have The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD has been ratified by 139 countries as of this writing and signed by a total of 158. The US is a signatory but has not yet, and may not, ratify the convention due to a massive misinformation campaign waged against it. Israel ratified the CRPD in 2012. The CRPD recognizes the imperative of including people with disabilities and of supporting their families. But laws and conventions are not enough to genuinely include people in the fabric of our communities. You have to want to do it, and know how.

Most Jewish Community professionals, educators and lay leaders are not trained in inclusive practices. And training is needed. Inclusion is in part a set of skills that can be taught. We have been doing it at the University of Delaware for the past eight years and last November, with the core support of The Ruderman Family Foundation and the support for participants from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation the first, but not the last, Jewish Leadership Institute on Disability and Inclusion was held near Baltimore. There is great professional talent in our communities, but they need to be supported and nurtured. Many feel like a salmon swimming upstream when dealing with Federations, Boards of Directors and synagogues. We CAN and MUST do better. Training is a start, but it is not enough.

And then there is money. Creating programs sometimes requires new or redeployed staff, sometimes it requires work to make facilities physically accessible and sometimes it is only a matter of training existing employees. Regardless, there is no reason why our communities should see this as an addition. Would we say that about support for Israel? Or for the elderly? Or for day schools? I think not. It goes back to values and attitudes. Either Jews with disabilities and, for children, their families are part of our community or they aren’t. I say they are, and therefore should be part of overall planning and allocations, not an afterthought or an add-on.

So how to advance the movement towards inclusion? One way is to stop funding programs that isolate and segregate Jews with disabilities. Inclusion does not mean creating new segregated and isolating programs. The Jewish Funders Network published a guide of progressive practices for inclusion. In every community there are experts who are Jewish and work in the disability community, though not necessarily the Jewish community. Most would be willing to help with technical assistance and support.

All communities need a plan. We need to know who the people with disabilities are, what are their needs and wants, and what are the obstacles to including them in the mainstream fabric of Jewish communal life. This information is not always at our fingertips, but neither is it a huge challenge to get it. We are back to attitudes again.

Think of what our communities could do to welcome all Jews. As the discussion, debate and yes angst about the Pew report continues to reverberate, inclusion of Jews with disabilities must be viewed as part of a comprehensive response in thought and in action.

Steven M. Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at the University of Delaware and Faculty Director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities.  He has been advocating for inclusion of people with disabilities in community life for three decades.