Leap of Faith

What I learned from bringing three students with disabilities to AIPAC’s Policy Conference

The Hillels of Westchester staff and student delegation at the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy Hillels of Westchester.

By Rachel Klein

At Hillel, where I work as an executive director serving four campuses, we envision a world in which every student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. When we say “every,” we mean “every.”

That’s why more than 700 Hillel professionals and other communal leaders convened in Orlando two years ago for a series of groundbreaking discussions of inclusion on campus. As a global movement, we’re raising awareness of the need for inclusion because, in the words of Hillel International President & CEO Eric D. Fingerhut, “for a student with a disability or facing a mental health crisis, being embraced by a community like ours can fundamentally change their college experience.”

Fingerhut’s words echoed in my head when, to my surprise, three Hillels of Westchester students, all of whom exist on the autism spectrum, applied to join our campus cadre at last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference.

Inclusion happens successfully on our campuses every day. Just ask the eight Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors fanning out to Hillels across the country to do one-on-one outreach to students with disabilities and help include them in campus Jewish life.

But this seemed a bigger, almost insurmountable challenge. This was Policy Conference – three days of highly cerebral, politically diverse discussions among 18,000 highly opinionated people crisscrossing the massive Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center. The dress code and the demeanor are formal. Decorum is paramount.

I had several fears:

Is this the best place for students whose social cues and interactions are often different than the average AIPAC goer?
What if one – or all – of them experiences an anxiety attack?
What if the crowds and tight schedule overwhelm them?

I began to catastrophize, imaging that my students would disrupt one or more of the intimate breakout sessions. I worried that my own staff wouldn’t be able to keep up with the students’ requests for aid. Most of all, I worried that the other nine members of our delegation would not accept them.

Our students with autism possess remarkable traits – extraordinary memory, high intelligence and kindness, among them. But the two young men had never traveled without their parents, and the young woman had done so only once in her life.

With no dedicated professional with expertise in serving the special needs population and no formal training in inclusion for my staff or me, there were practical reasons to leave the students behind. Yet I also sensed an opportunity here, even a moral obligation. So I took a deep breath, and a leap of faith.

And it all worked out – better, in fact, than I could have imagined.

These conferences are legendary for their schmoozing opportunities, and our young woman wasn’t about to miss out. When she was introduced to someone she didn’t know, she engaged in the best spirit of our movement. “I am a member of Hillel,” she told Eric S. Goldstein, the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, “and I learned a lot about Israel and met so many great people at this conference. How about you?” The two of them engaged in candid and substantive conversation. Seeing that, we then made a game-time decision to bring her to a reception for Hillel professionals, where her experience with my colleagues went much the same.

For the other students we brought, AIPAC was also a chance to learn, connect and grow.

One of the young men addressed the group near the close of the conference (an act of bravery in itself), explaining that AIPAC’s spirit of bipartisanship was an “a-ha moment” for him. But he wasn’t talking merely about political compromise, rather his belief that society is a better place when people are united across difference. “To see people who don’t agree on major issues come together made me feel hopeful. It made me feel like I am part of a community,” he said.

The day after our return from Policy Conference, this same student uncharacteristically contributed to the group conversation during weekly Lunch and Learn, offering us a takeaway Exodus story that fundamentally changed our reading of the text.

The young woman now expresses an interest in working as a full-time Jewish professional after college. She envisions herself as a leader of Shabbat and rituals on campus, beaming at the prospect of engaging her peers.

Some 4,000 students attended the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference. Three of them presented us with an unexpected opportunity to practice inclusion in the Jewish community. We took a leap of faith, and we’re all better as a result.

Interested in including students with disabilities at a major conference or event? Here are five takeaways from my experience.

  1. Take time to envision inclusion in various scenarios. Brainstorming “what ifs” helped staff remind one another of our respective skills and training, which informed plans and primed possible actions.
  2. Identify existing resources. Contact event/conference organizers ahead of time to find out about accommodations for attendees with unique needs.
  3. Ask questions. Communication with our students before of the conference afforded them an opportunity to envision their needs, share coping skills and build up a sense of security.
  4. Review schedules and timetables. This one task reaffirms expectations, eases stress and strengthens group dynamics. Consider differences in participants’ time management abilities.
  5. Assess strengths/assets. Ahead of the conference, members of our cohort were strategically engaged to act as leaders among their peers. In every case, participants were more than willing to accept a higher level of responsibility within the group.

Rachel Klein is the executive director of Hillels of Westchester.