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Disability Awareness Month

18 years ago, when I became rabbi at Congregation Or Ami, I was very thoughtful about what should be  the first policies I asked the board to pass.  The policy should reflect deeply held dreams of what a congregation should care about; it should illuminate important Jewish values.

I was thrilled when the board voted that:

Any child of a member has the right to a Jewish educational experience; and any child of a member, who works to the best of his or her ability, has the right and privilege of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Or Ami. 

This policy made clear our priority that children with disabilities – and their families – have a home in this congregation and every congregation. We trumpet loudly our commitment to people with disabilities on a special needs webpage, “No one is more welcome at Or Ami than you!”  We effectuate this by making sure our staff and educators say “yes” whenever asked about whether a child with disabilities can become a Bar Mitzvah, and by ensuring that our learning programs are flexible enough to meet a variety of unique needs.  We educate toward this reality by directing our educational leadership to work with families to ensure that each child finds a productive learning experience at Or Ami.  We partner with Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, so that Or Ami is their synagogue home.  We sponsor Brandon’s Buddies, a program which brings together typical and special needs children for friendship and play.  We celebrate joyously the numerous B’nai Mitzvah of children with special needs.  We blog about special needs and disabilities regularly.

I was overjoyed to read that the RACblog (of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) was publicizing the good work of our Reform Movement congregations in the run up to February’s disability awareness month.  (BTW, if you are not a regular reader of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC) blog, you are missing some important Jewish social justice blogging.)

Perhaps you will come to Or Ami’s annual Shabbat Service celebrating people with special needs on Friday, January 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm.  Families with children with special needs are invited to register for a special Shabbat dinner beforehand at 6:00 pm (there is a fee for the dinner).  

One comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'm glad to see that. As the parent of a teenager with a disability (physically pretty severe, not intellectually disabled) on the East Coast, I haven't found an emphasis on inclusion like what you're reporting. Bar Mitzvah inclusion, yes, though way more from staff than from rabbis. Lip service, yes. Past that, not really. This comment is about the leadership, not about the congregation itself.

    We went to assemblies where we as parents were pitched by people from the various Reform movement summer camps but, every time we looked more closely at one of those camps, they were not equipped to accommodate our son. We never found one that was.

    Our congregation has many trips for kids in high school and some in middle school. Some are overseas, like March of the Living, to Poland and Israel. Some are working trips, like helping out with Katrina recovery in New Orleans. Some are more local, like political or educational trips to Washington. I understand that it isn't necessarily fair to change the details of all trips for the sake of inclusion because that could interfere with the experiences of typically abled kids. However, we're not ever seeing trips planned from the outset with inclusion in mind. Our son didn't grow up here, so he doesn't miss the lack of integration all that much because he was never close to these kids to begin with, but I have a different concern: Teaching his peers by example that inconveniencing themselves for a peer with a disability is not a normal expectation (or, for that matter, an expectation at all) is one of the least Jewish lessons to pass on I can imagine.

    I don't really have other issues with my Temple. I have an enormous amount of respect for our rabbis and think that, in most respects, they do a great job. I think they'd be astonished to hear me say any of this; I'd imagine they think they're doing great. I'd also imagine this is a common phenomenon among congregations and among rabbis.

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