Taking Action Through Advocacy During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month

Naomi is the teen who uses the wheelchair, alongside her service dog, Chadds. Photo courtesy BBYO.

By Arielle Handel and Naomi Hess

Over the past ten years, Jewish communities around the world have embraced JDAIM, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, during the month of February. From sharing our thoughts about inclusion, to conducting educational programs about how we can help people with differing abilities feel more included in our events, there are many ways in which members of our community acknowledge the important issues surrounding disability awareness and inclusion.

BBYO member, Naomi Hess, had an opportunity to attend Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) on Capitol Hill last week, and shares her thoughts on how we can take our action and advocacy to the next level.


Last week, eleven other teens involved in BBYO and I attended Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD), an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of North America and the Religious Action Center. At JDAD, 200 people gathered to learn about the status of disability policy in America. As someone who is Jewish and has a disability, I am passionate about advancing the rights of all Americans, regardless of religion or ability.

This event enlightened me to some of the tools needed to advocate for better policies for people with disabilities. JDAD attendees heard from a variety of speakers, ranging from nonprofit leaders, to U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen, including Senator Chris Van Hollen, Representative Pete Sessions, and Senator Tammy Duckworth. We learned about how disability rights have been affected with the change in administration and how people with disabilities must work harder to gain the same opportunities as able-bodied people.

We also heard from leading policy experts about the two main policy agendas for JDAD. The first issue involved opposing a change in Medicaid funding that would place caps on the federal government’s share, or turn funds into block grants, and which would potentially lead to financial hardship for people with disabilities. The second policy issue focused on supporting the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Full Funding Act, which would raise the federal contribution for special education services to 40% as required by law.

BBYO teens also met with staff for Virginia Representatives Gerry Connolly and Barbara Comstock, and explained our positions on these two issues. Lobbying the Representatives was a great experience, enabling us to truly advocate for disability rights (and polish our public speaking skills at the same time!). I’m so glad to have had this opportunity. My fellow BBYO attendees agree and shared similar sentiments with me. Ilana Kaplan commented that, “JDAD allowed [her] to see firsthand what the leaders in our nation’s capital work on every day to ensure inclusion for all.” Sabrina Bramson called JDAD, “a really educational event that did a good job instilling Jewish values into our lobbying experience.”

Through powerful experiences like these advocating on behalf of people with differing abilities, we are learning more about how to build a genuinely inclusive community that advances the rights of all, regardless of religion or abilities. In the words of BBYO member, Lindsay, from Kentucky Indiana Ohio (KIO) region, “Inclusion is imperative to the ongoing success of both BBYO and the Jewish people. Our community is so incredible because of our welcoming and loving environment, and the Jewish future depends on this love and support that we provide for one another.” Together, we can work to ensure that those with differing abilities have the access they need to realize their goals and be productive citizens in our global society.

Naomi Hess is a member of BBYO. She lives in Clarksville, Maryland and is a senior in high school. Arielle Handel is the Director of Inclusion for BBYO.