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How To Engage Individuals With Disabilities In The Jewish Community

The Jewish New Year starts literally with a blast. On Rosh Hashanah we are commanded to listen to the kol, the voice, of the shofar. We are instructed to listen to each distinct sound. Listening extends beyond the physical ability to hear. It is about focused attention and a desire to reflect and understand. To create an inclusive community, we need to listen to each other’s distinct voices.

When Sarah asked Abraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away, God tells Abraham “everything that Sarah is saying to you, listen to her voice.” Even though it may seem that Abraham listened to Sarah by banishing Hagar, some commentators suggest that Abraham didn’t really listen to Sarah’s voice. As Rabbi Ari Hart from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale points out “what might have happened if Abraham had just listened to Sarah? How might the story have been different if Abraham had sat down and said — tell me about it.”

Pushing ourselves to be fully inclusive requires conversations. It involves creating relationships that foster an understanding that we all have something to offer and that it is diversity that makes our community stronger. It is pushing through the uncomfortable and unknown and asking what’s working, what’s not working and what more can we, together, do?

We need to reach out to individuals with disabilities who are not yet engaged in congregational life and listen. We need to accept that we may have inadvertently put stumbling blocks in their way. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Disability Inclusion Planning Toolkit was designed primarily as a conversation starter. The toolkit asks proving “yes” or “not yet” questions to engage individuals in the process of discussing what’s working, what’s not working and what more can we do. While the toolkit is connected to a growing database of resources, it does not evaluate or dictate a specific path. Rather it is designed to be used repeatedly by a range of stockholders to spark discussion. As with all disability inclusion work, the voices of those with disabilities is essential to this process. Like Abraham who may have thought he was listening to Sarah, an individual or small group could use this toolkit to guide a congregation’s journey. The toolkit was designed to incorporate a range of voices. It was designed to use repeatedly throughout the year.

To advance inclusion within our Jewish Day Schools, we need to listen to families, students and a full range of educators. The B’Yadenu Project, an initiative of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, provides one example of how to do this in an intentional structured way. The first stage of this project requires an intensive process of self-reflection. Each school involved is asked to form a leadership team that involves a variety of voices. This is not a special education initiative but rather requires change within the entire school. As we have brought this project to our area in Greater Washington, DC, we added a Community of Practice (CoP). This Community of Practice includes representatives from each of the participating schools, community Jewish education inclusion specialists, our Federation and professionals from Gateways. Both the individual schools’ self-reflective process and the Community of Practice strive to listen to a variety of voices. Like the Disability Inclusion Toolkit, this process does not involve a predetermined path. Rather it is about listening, responding, and then listening some more.

Advancing employment for individuals with disabilities also involves spending time listening to both employers and employees. Our local Jewish social service agency, JSSA’s specialized employment department is striving to match the right employee with the right career opportunity. This past summer they provided paid work based learning experiences for high school students. This is critical in helping young adults realize their potential. This is about creating a win-win situation that ultimately improves a business’ bottom-line. To do so, we need to actively listen to both potential employees and potential employers.

Arielle Silverman, a disabled activist and social scientist writes about disability wisdom as “a way of including people with disabilities that goes beyond following legal requirements. It involves building person-to-person relationships with them and learning from their life experiences as you build a culture of inclusion together.” This involves listening. As we move from the distinct blasts of the Shofar in September and recognize National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, let us recommit ourselves to a year of listening and learning.

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