Benjamin Rosloff, an aspiring Jewish filmmaker living with autism, was filming a bar mitzvah in Port Washington, NY. But the young boy getting bar mitzvahed didn’t say the prayers or read the Torah with his own voice. He also had autism, and relied on an augmentative speech device to communicate.
“I couldn’t tell whether the words from his device were his own, or were programmed by someone else,” Rosloff said. “It made me wonder about people with disabilities and their prayers.”
Six years later, Rosloff is combining his passion for filmmaking with his connection to Judaism to empower the Jewish and disabled communities. As the Jewish Inclusion Fellow for RespectAbility, a nonprofit that helps organizations be more inclusive for people with disabilities, Rosloff created “What Do You Pray For?,” a documentary mini-series that asks Jews with disabilities across the United States to share what prayer means to them.
The 16-part series, available on Vimeo, was recorded via Zoom, and edited from Rosloff’s home in Great Neck, NY, where he’s been quarantining since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’m advocating for people with disabilities and doing what I love,” said, Rosloff, who is continuing to film and conduct interviews with the goal of turning the mini-series into a full-length documentary. “I’m glad I could create something meaningful during the pandemic.”
Though he’d always been a movie buff, Rosloff became interested in pursuing film and production when he joined his middle school’s television station. His passion led him to Long Island University where he earned his BFA in electronic media.
But as a person living with autism, Rosloff grew up facing barriers of his own, and began recognizing the inequality people with disabilities experience, particularly in religious spaces. It made him think about how he could use his skills to bring about awareness and change.
“Religion is mostly about teaching values, morals, acceptance, and how to treat people,” Rosloff said. “And people with disabilities should not be pitied. They are equal in the temple.”
Inequality and inaccessibility for disabled individuals in religious spaces is not uncommon, since religious organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that protects disabled individuals from discrimination.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, an international advocate for disability rights and the president of RespectAbility, has experienced these issues first hand within the Jewish community.
Growing up with dyslexia and ADHD, Laszlo struggled with Hebrew, preventing her from getting bat mitzvahed on time. She is also the parent of a child with autism, who was refused acceptance to multiple Jewish day schools because of his disability.
“There is a lot of conventional non-wisdom that people with disabilities don’t matter as much in faith communities,” Mizrahi said. “It’s such a loss for those faith communities because of the abundance of richness, love, and wisdom people with disabilities have to offer.”
But efforts toward acceptance and inclusion have been on the rise in recent years, with more organizations than ever looking to include people with disabilities, according a recent RespectAbility study. And projects like Rosloff’s, Laszlo says, are part of the solution.
“Ben’s film gives more people a way to get to know people with disabilities who might have the same hopes and dreams as they do,” said Mizrahi.
And that is precisely what Rosloff discovered through his work on the mini-series.
He found that people with disabilities pray for many of the same things that non-disabled people pray for. They pray for health and happiness, for success in their job or career, for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to be reunited with friends and family in person.
Most notably, none of the individuals interviewed said they prayed for their disability to go away. Instead, they prayed for acceptance and strength to overcome the obstacles they face as a person with a disability.
“That is one of the biggest misconceptions about people with disabilities,” Rosloff said.
As the path toward inclusion progresses, Rosloff wants people to focus less on perceived differences, and more on things people in faith communities all have in common.
“Being inclusive starts with asking questions and understanding what people are feeling and seeking,” Rosloff wrote in his artist statement.” Prayer is how we all grow, and gain an understanding of ourselves.”
Jewish filmmaker with autism Jews with disabilities