A New York Moment: Jewish Disability Awareness Month
At Westchester Reform Temple, our clergy and staff embody inclusion. It is the fabric of who they are, of what WRT stands for. But many with disabilities or family members of those with disabilities don't always feel welcome, even in a congregation that celebrates inclusion. For a culture change to occur, our clergy cannot do it alone. We need to empower others in this task.
Many of us have no prior experience interacting with people with different kinds of disabilities. Attitudinal barriers are the hardest to change, but they can be changed. How do we as a congregation ensure that those with disabilities are given a place in our community?
We need to raise awareness. One of the ways in which we do so is through synagogue-wide programming during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. In the past at Westchester Reform Temple, we have held the following programs during February for Jewish Disability Awareness Month:
- Committees that met in February and March shared a teaching: "Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone, as it is said, 'From all who would teach me, I have gained understanding" (Pirkei Avot 4:1). We provided discussion questions such as, "How can we teach others (our children, our students, etc.) to be open to the possibility of learning from people they may not consider to be their teachers?"
- We held an Inclusion Shabbat with the expressed goal of "Expanding the Circle of Welcome." Although all of our Shabbatot have become more inclusive over the years, our clergy used this particular Shabbat to discuss how different texts can be read with new insights on inclusion, I delivered the D'var Torah, and we had a sign language interpreter.
- In our religious school:
- We showed "Praying with Lior" to the Hebrew High School students and opened the event to the community.
- A young adult in a wheelchair who grew up at WRT visited the 6th grade Sharing Shabbat class and conversed with students about her disability.
- In our 5th grade class, three speakers addressed three different topics: myths about deafness, what it's like to live with an autistic brother, and an organization called Visions that provides services for the blind and visually impaired. The students listened to a one-hour lecture and then spent the next hour of class processing what they heard.
- In our Early Childhood Center (ECC):
- Classes spoke at great length about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream of acceptance. The older children were really able to talk about people's differences at a greater level than the younger ones, but the main point of tolerance and acceptance was the real deal here.
- Each Friday in February when the kids visited the sanctuary, they were taught to sign the Sh'ma.
- We began forming a support group for parents of children in the ECC who receive disability services. The goals are to build community at a time when parents begin to feel isolated and to create an opportunity for parents to share stories and resources.
- Greeter initiative: Members of the Inclusion Task Force, along with the Clergy and Greeter Committee, trained more than 100 people to be "greeters" on a Friday night or at any temple gathering. This training was more than a "nuts and bolts" orientation, but rather a larger discussion of the culture of welcoming and breaking down barriers and assuring that no one is ever left standing alone--not at worship (and the thoughtful ways to ascertain whether in fact someone might want to worship privately), nor at an Oneg, a dinner or anywhere within WRT.
In addition to programming for the month of February, we have an active Inclusion Task force, as mentioned above, that works to raise awareness year round. The biggest change I have noticed over the past couple of years is an increased awareness in everything we do: New program initiatives as well as existing programs are created with a heightened awareness of those who may not feel included. For example, we now make phone calls to those who many not feel welcome, rather than sending an e-mail, because the former is more personal. And we make sure that when the rabbi says, "Everyone can participate," they know, "Yes, he means them, too."
While we worry about those who do not feel included because of a disability, we also worry about those who are afraid to come in the door, those who need a faith-based community the most. Our work is just beginning.
I challenge each of us to open our eyes, open our hearts, and open our mouths.
I challenge each of us to step out of our comfort zones and reach out to all the members of our community: those in mourning, those with disabilities, those who just lost a job, those who are sitting alone at services , those who may be standing alone at the Oneg , those who are afraid to come in the front door.
Those who want to be--and should be--counted.