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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However, Laszlo Mizrahi says Jews with disabilities are “far more alienated” from Jewish life than Jews in general because many have been turned away from, or not had their needs met by, Jewish institutions.

“If you have a disability and, say, want to attend a day school or camp, you’re frequently told no,” she said, adding that many Jewish day schools “counsel you to leave if they don’t think you’re successful enough.”

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, echoes Laszlo Mizrahi’s assessment that greater inclusion is good for Jewish continuity — and that far more work needs to be done.

“Jewish organizations run after people who are well educated, upwardly mobile and not engaged, but at the same time they are really bad at connecting all these parts of the Jewish community that want in,” Ruderman said. “There are all sorts of parts of the Jewish community that want in that are kept out, whether because of ignorance or people saying it is too costly, which is not the case.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about a discriminatory attitude that the future of our community looks a certain way,” he said, adding that if American Jewish institutions do not become more inclusive, “We’re going to become a community that’s unattractive to the very young people we’re trying to attract because they are used to living in a pluralistic, inclusive society and will think the Jewish community looks like a country club.”

Ruderman’s foundation has arguably become the leading advocate for Jews with disabilities, in the United States and Israel.

Since 2002, the foundation, which spent $2.7 million in 2011, the last year for which tax forms are available, has focused most of its efforts on promoting inclusion in the Jewish community. Initially it concentrated on Boston, where it partnered with the local federation to help area day schools better serve children with disabilities and helped launch a job-training program for Jews with disabilities. In recent years it has sought to have a more national impact by partnering with or convening other funders and national Jewish groups.

For example, in December the foundation launched a partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism to improve attitudes about inclusion and disabilities among Reform community leaders and clergy, Jewish professionals, organizational leaders and congregants, and to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in Reform Jewish life. The foundation is now in discussions with Chabad about developing a joint effort, Ruderman said.

The foundation also is working with the Jewish Federations of North America to create federation-based internships for individuals with disabilities.

JFNA’s Daroff says the project is “about individuals getting training and experience, but it’s also to help expand the horizons of the federations themselves and give federation employees experience working with people with disabilities.”

Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director of Matan, an organization that advocates for Jewish students with special needs, says the federation internships are significant because “federations are the umbrella for many other organizations in a community, so if this is something they are deeming important, then it’s going to impact many other agencies as well.”

While she is pleased by the rising profile of disability issues, Kirshner says it leads to another challenge: the need to train more professionals “who are capable of helping Jewish communities support all kinds of learners.”

“The demand is going to outweigh the supply of well-trained educators unless there’s real push to plan for it,” she said.


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