By Ilana Kaplan
During February, I had the privilege of representing BBYO at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) Conference, along with over one hundred passionate members of the Jewish community dedicated to making our country a more inclusive place for all.
My day started out like any day; I woke up, got dressed, drove myself to the Metro, took the train into the city, and walked from the station to the Rayburn Office Building on Capitol Hill. Sounds easy, right? It was for me because that’s how my “normal” looks. But the reality is, for over 50% of America’s population “normal” looks a lot different for certain individuals and their loved ones. That 50% represents the percentage of Americans with a disability, or those who have someone close to them with a disability. 50% is a significant number, so why do we spend so little time addressing the needs of half of our population? That question is precisely what drew me to attend JDAD.
The first half of our day was comprised of hearing from a range of influential speakers including members of Congress, Rabbis, and individuals with disabilities, to name a few. While the speakers had varying backgrounds, abilities, and political affiliations, they all shared a common goal: to increase the rights and resources for people with disabilities.
In addition to hearing from speakers, we had time to review the two acts in which we would be educating members of Congress on later in the day. The first was the EMPOWER Care Act which supports the Money Follows the Person program, a program that helps low-income older adults and people with disabilities make the transition from living in an institution to living in their communities. The second was the ABLE Age Adjustment Act which would raise the age cap for ABLE accounts by 20 years, helping six million more people with disabilities have access to the aid and resources they deserve.
After lunch, it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Conference attendees were split into groups and given times to meet with members of Congress to urge them to support and help pass these two bills. My group had the privilege of meeting with the staff of Representative Brad Schneider of Illinois and Representative Anthony Brown of Maryland, with whom we shared personal anecdotes and facts to encourage their co-sponsorship and passage of these bills.
Attending JDAD for the second year in a row and supporting these efforts seemed natural to me. In Judaism, we are taught that each of us is created “B’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of G-d, and therefore we, as Jews, have an obligation to support one another regardless of our differences. Too often we find ourselves advocating for those just like us, those with similar “normals” to our own. While it’s important to advocate for ourselves, it is even more essential to advocate for people who are different, for people with “normals” that we could never imagine but must consider. It’s the difference between having sympathy and showing empathy; the difference in feeling for those who are different from us and putting ourselves in their situation to understand their needs.
If it weren’t for JDAD, I’m not sure I would fully understand the importance of recognizing that my seemingly “normal” morning on Tuesday, February 26th was not an attainable “normal” for many in our community. It was hearing from a blind Rabbi and a congressman with two prosthetic legs and surrounding myself with some of the most empathetic people out there, that transformed the way I see myself and those around me. Every human created in the image of G-d has something to contribute to our community, and while it may be in differing capacities, we must recognize and embrace this. Now when I talk about things being “normal,” I will be adamant about emphasizing that it was “normal” for me while remaining cognizant of the varying narratives of “normal” around me.
Ilana Kaplan is a member of BBYO and the Regional N’siah (president) of BBYO Northern Region East: DC Council, where she oversees over 1,500 teens in the area. She is 18 years old and a recent graduate of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.