There’s a movement happening and it’s happening now.
Like the early pioneers who settled the land of Israel, individuals with special needs and their families are creating change for the future and crossing unknown lands towards acceptance, appreciation and inclusion. They are inspiring service providers,teachers, family and friends. And this week, they inspired 25 leaders in the Jewish disability community who gathered at the Pearlstone Retreat center in rural Maryland (well it may just be 25 minutes outside of Baltimore but for this native Angeleno, it sure felt pretty rural!) to learn about Disability and Inclusion in the Jewish community.
Along with Adynna Swarz from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Elaine Hall from The Miracle Project Judaica and consultant at Vista Del Mar, I was fortunate to be invited to attend the first Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. presented by The National Leadership Consortium on Disability and Inclusion, a program of the University of Delaware’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
(For more information, visit here or search for our hashtag #JInclusion13 on Twitter and Facebook).
Thanks to the generous funding of The Ruderman Family Foundation and support from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, educators, community professionals, family members and self-advocates from across North America came together to grow, learn and see what best practices we can bring home to our communities to create change.
From all different areas in the disability community, we came together and learned about housing initiatives, educational programs, employment possibilities, how to work with funders and boards and welcoming children and adults with special needs, and their families, into all aspects of Jewish communal life.
An underlying theme throughout the week was creating person-centered programming and always including the person with special needs in decision making and choices. As Joshua Erenmark, a teenager with Autism, reminded us on the Jewish Federation Special Needs Study Mission to Israel: "Nothing about us without us" (read more about it on this blog by clicking here).
As with any change, we know it is not easy and will require hard work. We came from different social service and community agencies, educational,housing and vocational programs but over delicious, organic meals and long walks around Pearlstone, we found that we have much to learn from each other. A colleague in Atlanta working with adults can help someone planning educational programs for children at a school in Baltimore. I can call colleagues in Detroit and get guidance about creating programs for teens with special needs here in LA. The amazing staff of the Leadership Institute pushed us to question the status quo and dream big for the future. As Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, senior advisor on disability issues to the URJ Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said so beautifully, “We must change attitudes from pity to possibility.”
Attitudes in the Jewish community are changing, at their own pace, and we are ready to help facilitate that change. The week we spent at Pearlstone fell during the last four nights of Chanukah. On Wednesday, as we lit the candles for the 8th night of Chanukah and danced around a beautiful fireplace, we experienced the miracles that Chanukah describes.
During Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of oil lasting for eight days instead of just one and that a small group of Jews was able to defeat the mighty Greek army. We, like the families and individuals that we help and support, are overcoming the army of injustice and exclusion and fighting for a world of inclusion and possibility for those with disabilities and special needs. Our work will continue as we return to our homes, in Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto and beyond, but we are forever changed from this week of leadership, learning and growth. Nes Gadol Haya Po. A great miracle has surely happened here.
Sarah Blitzstein, MSW, MAJCS is the Director of Hamercaz and Special Needs Programs at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. She works with children and adults with special needs and can be reached at SBlitzstein@jfsla.org
For more information on Hamercaz (one-stop special needs resource for birth to 22), go here and to learn more about Chaverim, social/recreational programs for Jewish adults with special needs, click here.