Disabled Needs Grow Even as Jewish Groups Focus on Issue

Camps and Schools Eye New Special Needs Programs

Inclusive: Children with disabilities and their peers kayaking at Camp Ramah Wisconsin.
national ramah commission
Inclusive: Children with disabilities and their peers kayaking at Camp Ramah Wisconsin.

By Julie Wiener

Published February 26, 2014.
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(JTA) — In the coming months, six young Jews with disabilities will start paid internships at major Jewish federations through a pilot program. If successful, the program will expand to communities throughout North America.

In the fall, Manhattan’s first Jewish day school for children with special needs will open.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Jewish Camp is seeking to raise $31 million for a multi-pronged effort to more than double the number of children with disabilities attending Jewish overnight camps.

As the sixth annual Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month draws to a close — events nationwide included an advocacy day in Washington — the issue of disabilities is enjoying greater prominence than ever in the Jewish communal world.

“I feel like we’re really riding a wave of care and interest on this issue,” said Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of Manhattan’s Shefa School, which will serve children with speech and language delays when it opens in September.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, a sponsor of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and co-chair of the Jewish Disabilities Advocacy Network, said, “Within the Jewish community, recognizing that every part of our community should be included in our communal activities has become more apparent and is being fulfilled more and more. To not include individuals with disabilities and their family members in an open Jewish community is really seen as being treif [not kosher].”

Nonetheless, advocates say the Jewish community still has a long way to go when it comes to opening doors for Jews with disabilities, a diverse group estimated to make up 15-20 percent of the total Jewish population. It’s a group that encompasses everyone from those with language and developmental delays to the autistic, to people with physical and psychiatric disabilities.

In part, advocates say, the process of change has been slowed because American Jewish communal institutions — like all religious organizations — are exempt from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. In particular, many synagogue schools and Jewish day schools turn away children with disabilities whom they feel unable to serve. Physical accessibility also is limited in many Jewish institutional buildings.


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