(image from flickr / Province of British Columbia)
Last November, the American advocacy organization Respect Ability announced some good news. New research it had conducted in 2021 suggested that disability awareness and inclusion was improving in Jewish communities across North America and Israel. According to its most recent survey, more synagogues, Jewish community centres, schools and private institutions are designing programs that consider the needs of people with disabilities. And more individuals are able to find Jewish organizations that support individuals with invisible disabilities like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.
Respect Ability’s goal for the survey was to determine the health of disability rights in diverse Jewish communities, particularly in countries where there were laws against employment and housing discrimination. Its last survey had been in 2018, and researchers wanted to know whether accessibility and acceptance had improved in the past three years.
There were just over 2,000 respondents in total, primarily from Canada, the United States and Israel. The overall message was that inclusion and accommodation was expanding. Accessibility for wheelchairs and improved opportunities for individuals with sight or hearing challenges were on the rise, as were outreach efforts for individuals with disabilities in general.
What is more, the number of faith organizations hiring rabbis and staff who had disabilities and, therefore, understood firsthand the challenges of a physical or cognitive disability, had increased by more than 73%. More than half (57%) of the survey-takers also said that the organizations had made public commitments to support diversity.
But the survey also identified a key obstacle: many community leaders wanted to help expand opportunities for inclusion, but “didn’t know how.” Roughly one-fifth of all respondents said that expanding opportunities in their faith communities was limited by leaders’ lack of knowledge or experience in making settings more accessible. This meant, in some cases, that members with invisible disabilities like autism or ADHD didn’t have access to resources or were turned away from programs and activities.
Most of the responses to the survey came from Respect Ability’s home base: U.S. states like California and New York, where laws and advocacy initiatives are different from those in Canada. Only about 7% of the responses came from Canada, where disability rights are protected by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The survey also did not reveal how much, or if any, of the Canadian data came from the Vancouver area. So, are the survey’s findings reflective of diversity inclusion here?
The last three years have been challenging for many, but particularly for organizations that rely on in-person community participation. The 2020 shutdown of schools, synagogues and community centres due to COVID forced many organizations in the Vancouver area to suspend programs that offered disability-inclusive services. Still, the Jewish Independent found that a number of organizations were able to develop creative ways to maintain their inclusive classes and programs.
Trying to inspire inclusion
In 2018, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver launched its Inspiring Inclusion grant program to assist community organizations in designing or improving inclusive programs. The grant competition was created as part of its 2020 Strategic Priorities, and it offered up to $2,500 to organizations that developed a new program or idea that would expand disability inclusion.
Four one-year grants, which were awarded in 2020, went to Vancouver and Richmond applicants. Each offered a unique way for engagement, ranging from new educational strategies that catered to individual learning approaches to special equipment that helped expand creative participation in the classroom.
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Family Yoga Fundamentals program was designed to appeal to a variety of abilities and offered options for in-person family participation. It later gave rise to a virtual format that attendees could link up with from home. According to the JCC’s adult programs coordinator, Lisa Cohen Quay, Family Yoga Fundamentals integrates adaptable exercises that are non-stigmatizing and fit a variety of abilities. Quay said the program has also been shown to help with pandemic stress and loneliness.
Richmond Jewish Day School turned to music as a way to inspire inclusion. According to principal Sabrina Bhojani, the grant provided funding for specially adapted Orff percussion instruments, or xylophones that could be used by students with special needs. “Music education is an integral component of both our B.C. and Hebrew curriculum at RJDS,” Bhojani said. “Weaving music into [the] curriculum is a meaningful way to help our students develop their Jewish identity and better understand their culture.”
Congregation Beth Tikvah used the funding to help develop Kavod. According to Rabbi Susan Tendler, the program aims to ensure that the synagogue’s services and activities are open to everyone, “regardless of personal physical, financial, or accessibility limitations.” Kavod’s development is ongoing.
Congregation Beth Israel received a grant to create new Hebrew school programming. Beth Israel’s director of youth engagement, Rabbi David Bluman, said the funding helped make the Hebrew reading program more inclusive to children with learning challenges. “We always strive to be [as inclusive] as we can,” he said, adding that many of Beth Israel’s youth programs are adaptable to students’ abilities, such as the use of “shadow” companions who function as a “big brother or big sister” for a child during activities and lessons. The shadow program can be used for age levels. “We want our teens to be as independent as possible,” Bluman said.
B’nai mitzvah programs
Both Beth Israel and Temple Sholom tailor their b’nai mitzvah programs to meet the specific abilities of the child. Temple Sholom School’s principal, Jen Jaffe, said about 10% of the student body have varying needs.
“All b’nai mitzvah-aged children are given the opportunity to have a b’nai mitzvah, and the clergy works with each family to make sure expectations and goals are feasible and met. Each child is given the chance to shine regardless of any disabilities,” Jaffe said. The school also trains madrachim, or helper students, to support students with invisible disabilities.
Beth Israel is also known for its inclusive b’nai mitzvah program, which is led by ba’allat tefilla Debby Fenson. She said the program is designed to ensure that a child, irrespective of ability, can participate in the service: “I think that the expectation is that every child should be called up to [the bimah]. It’s not about how well they read the Torah, it’s about welcoming them into the community.”
Fenson said the community has celebrated more than one b’nai mitzvah in which a child’s medical challenges needed to be considered. In one case, the child, who was nonverbal, was aided by his mother in saying the Shema. “There was clear understanding on his part,” Fenson said. “His mother helped him in forming the words and saying along with him. He was welcomed into the community.”
Leadership by inclusion
Respect Ability’s survey of North American and Israeli Jewish communities highlighted two factors that are often important to creating inclusiveness: the top-down commitment to diversity and a leader’s personal experience. All of the above synagogues, schools and community services – as well as others – benefit from clear initiatives that attract families with accessibility needs and see inclusion as an expanding mission. In some cases, they also benefit from leadership that is open about their own health challenges as well.
Beth Israel Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said he is aware that his willingness to talk openly about his own challenges can help create a supportive environment for others. Infeld was born with a congenital heart defect.
“Unfortunately, I have firsthand experience with health issues that I am happy to share with people about, certainly because I want to be transparent about who I am as a human being…. I would hope, had I been born with a whole heart and not a hole in it, that I would still have a whole heart,” he said, noting that when we’re forced to reflect on our own abilities and limitations, it can inspire empathy for others faced with similar challenges.
One area that was not addressed in the survey was accessible housing, which helps expand disability inclusion. Tikva Housing Society’s very first housing project in 2008 contained accessible units. The organization’s third inclusive property, Dogwood Gardens, opens this year in the West End. This will be the subject of a future story in the Jewish Independent.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.