A version of this article originally appeared in New Voices.
I’ve met member of the House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus Rep. James Langevin (D-RI), networked with RespectAbilityUSA president Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, and practiced my ASL with program director of Gallaudet University Hillel Jacob Salem, the first-ever Hillel director who is Deaf.
One year ago, as a freshman at American University, I could scarcely imagine having any of these opportunities. This year, it’s all in a typical Tuesday.
Let me back up for just a minute to explain.
I had never heard of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day or even Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month until the fall of 2016, when the former director of engagement at American University Hillel invited me to participate. Curious and excited by this chance to explore the intersection of two of my most central identities, I registered to attend the event, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I traveled to Capitol Hill with a friend from AU Hillel, eager to learn and hoping to find some ideas to bring back to campus.
Ultimately, I came back with so much more. Just a few short days after the event, I hosted my own Disability Inclusion Shabbat at Hillel, a first of its kind event on my campus, where I was able to introduce concepts I had learned from the speakers and attendees at the advocacy day, along with the materials I had prepared myself.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how all this came about, and I realize that it’s the product of a synergistic relationship between two of the most fundamental aspects of my being – Jewish identity and disability advocacy. These two identities have merged in the world and in me.
I feel front and center in a Jewish communal effort to change the culture and make life more inclusive.
I have discovered that there is a movement of disability inclusion advocates whose work is fueled, informed and enriched by their Jewish values.
Rabbi Gary Pokras of Congregation Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, highlighted this same point during this year’s advocacy day: “What we are doing today is truly in the order of the Torah. It is truly holy. This isn’t just practicing the Jewish value of helping others, but instead is [what it means to be] Jewish.”
And joining me in this holy work are my fellow Jewish students.
Seated at my table in the Rayburn House Office Building during the advocacy day program, was Adam Fishbein, a fellow Hillel student at American University. Last year, he stood up to ask a question of the assembled experts that struck me as particularly brave for its humility: “What advice do you have for me as a self-advocate? How can I be a better self-advocate?”
The answer isn’t simple, but Hillel is empowering students like us to become self-advocates for the issues that matter most to us — students like the Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors who fan out on campuses across the country to host disability inclusion initiatives and start groundbreaking conversations about inclusion on campus.
“As a college student, it’s so important to come to [these events] and learn about these issues so we can bring the knowledge back to campus and make a difference,” said Gabrielle Nurenberchik, a Jewish student at Susquehanna University. She was inspired to come to this year’s advocacy day after Hillel helped send her to the Ruderman Inclusion Summit in November. Like so many of us, her interest in disability inclusion is amplified by her Judaism and, in return, her connection to her Jewish identity strengthened through her advocacy work.
By recognizing many of the Jewish values I have grown up practicing reflected in the world of social justice work, I have become a more curious, compassionate and open-minded disability advocate. And by learning how people with disabilities have historically found leadership opportunities in the Jewish community – even pivotal leadership roles — like Moses, who had a speech impediment, and Jacob, who had a limp, I am finding myself more at home in my religion than I have ever felt.