At Share the Journey on Feb. 6, before the official program started, left to right: Carmel Tanaka, Leamore Cohen, Penny Gurstein, Shane Simpson, Alisa Polsky, Tammy Kalla and Clark Levykh. (photo from JCC inclusion services)
“Inclusion is the framework for our community’s future,” said Shannon Gorski, executive member-at-large of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver board of directors, at Share the Journey: An Evening of Inspiration. “The JCC was my second home volunteering since childhood,” she said in her opening remarks. “We want to make sure the JCC grows to support all who depend on its presence.”
The Feb. 6 event at the Rothstein Theatre was one of several initiatives being led by the JCC during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). It featured a few speakers, including Shane Simpson, provincial minister of social development and poverty reduction, as well as the screening of a video of the Bagel Club’s trip to Israel last year and of the film My Hero Brother.
The Bagel Club is a JCC inclusion services program. According to the website, the group is “a social club for adults with diverse needs that focuses on social and recreational activities while promoting Jewish heritage, education and community engagement.” Activities include yoga, Israeli dancing, arts and crafts, outings and music appreciation. The Bagel Club also runs a community kitchen focusing on creating “delicious and nutritional kosher-style meals” together. Eleven Bagel Club participants were present on the night of Feb. 6, with Lyle Lexier offering a few remarks on the use of language regarding differing abilities and David Benbaruj introducing the film screening.
Many at the event, including Simpson, when he took to the stage, were wearing the black T-shirt the JCC made for JDAIM, which says, “Labels are for clothes,” on the front. In his remarks, the minister spoke about the importance of inclusion and diversity work throughout all of the communities of British Columbia and highlighted the work of his own department, which focuses on community-building and poverty reduction within its greater mission.
Simpson shared some of the results of the fact-finding mission his ministry had recently undertaken in 28 communities in British Columbia. He highlighted the urgent situation in the province with regard to poverty and inequality: “678,000 people live in poverty in British Columbia,” he said, “which is 15% of the population. Forty percent of those are the working poor; one in five children live in poverty. If you are indigenous or have special needs, you are twice as likely to be poor.”
The minister said “social isolation is a key piece” that needs to be addressed throughout the province. “After people with disabilities in this province tell me they don’t have enough money, they tell me they want a job, they want to contribute,” he said. “When employers reach out and hire a differently abled employee, they tell me after they made the fit, they got a remarkable employee.”
Leamore Cohen, inclusion services coordinator at the JCC, introduced the video on the Bagel Club’s Israel trip. As Omer Adam’s “Tel Aviv Habibi” pulsed in the background of the video, the audience clapped to the beat.
Tammy Kalla and Penny Gurstein then read a list of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver Inspiring Inclusion grant recipients. Congregation Beth Israel was given funds to hire a tutor so that children with learning challenges could learn to read Torah; Beth Tikvah to hire the appropriate professionals to enable children and youth with invisible disabilities to participate fully alongside their peers in a range of programs; the JCC for a new program called Family Yoga Fundamentals; Richmond Jewish Day School to offer a fully inclusive music program; and Vancouver Hebrew Academy to instal a wheelchair ramp to the playground equipment that has been specially designed for children of all abilities.
The evening concluded with the 2016 Israeli film My Hero Brother, directed by Yonatan Nir. It follows a number of Israelis whose siblings have Down syndrome, as they take their brothers and sisters hiking in the Indian Himalayas. In introducing the screening, Benbaruj spoke beautifully about love, community and his wish that the inclusive communities we had learned about throughout the night could be a model for the world.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.