Toward Full Inclusion of People With Disabilities in Jewish Life

Inside Leadership

Toward Full Inclusion of People With Disabilities in Jewish Life

Circle of hands linked together in inclusion and solidarity

On February 2, hundreds of Jewish advocates gathered at the seventh annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD),  co-sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jewish Federations of North America, and dozens of other partners across the country. JDAD offered a unique opportunity for all Jews to unite around this issue, which affects communities across the denominational spectrum. It also helped kick off Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), an annual community-wide initiative that seeks to raise awareness and support for including people with disabilities in all facets of Jewish life.

At the heart of this advocacy work are efforts to amplify the perspectives and voices of people with disabilities. JDAD reminds us that one of our most powerful champions, Moses, had a disability, and that the Holiness Code of Leviticus commands us to respect and raise up, rather than prejudice, the disabled.  This February, particularly with the start of a new Congress and administration, provides opportunities for us to learn and collaborate in addressing the most pressing, on-the-ground issues for people with disabilities.

During JDAD, we heard from leading policy experts about the most urgent issues facing people with disabilities in the 115th Congress. Threats to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid are matters of fundamental health and security, particularly for individuals with disabilities. Members of Congress have proposed instituting substantial cuts to Medicaid, a program that provides health coverage for over ten million people with disabilities. The proposed cuts would have dramatic effects in communities across the country.

JDAD participants also spoke to their representatives about the profound importance of defending the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from threats that could substantially undermine its impact. Proposed legislation currently circulating would chip away at the civil rights protections the ADA has provided for the last 26 years, setting a dangerous precedent for similar action in the future. Under this legislation, people with disabilities would become the only group whose civil rights are subject to a waiting period. Our advocates reminded members of Congress that the ADA is not an abstract set of regulations, but provides necessary protections for millions of people every day.

At the RAC, we recognize that our advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities must be matched by inclusive practices within our own community. Our work with the Ruderman Family Foundation has allowed us to make enormous progress in this realm. The URJ-Ruderman Mental Health Learning Opportunity informs our communities about the inclusion of people with mental illnesses, and how to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. Through this partnership, we have implemented more inclusive practices in worship, recognizing the barriers that too often exclude members of our community from partaking in spiritual experiences.

Judaism teaches “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot, 2:5). During JDAD, we heeded this injunction by lifting up the perspectives of people with disabilities within our community, and by demonstrating the power of the Jewish people to unify around issues at the core of our tradition. Our message is strongest when people with disabilities are at the center, and when Jews speak with a strong, unified voice for justice.

Throughout Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (and the entire calendar year), we will continue to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities—in Congress and within the Reform Movement. At the 2017 Consultation on Conscience, we will honor Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, former Senior Adviser on Disability Issues to the RAC and a powerful champion of putting people with disabilities at the center of Jewish inclusion and advocacy efforts. We are indebted to Rabbi Landsberg and all others whose tireless work pushes ever forward toward the full inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish and civic life.   

How can you become an advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities?

  1. Urge Congress to oppose the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, which would undermine some of the most important measures that protect equal accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
  2. Explore the Hineinu: Here We Are guide, a collaboration of disability professionals, activists, and policy experts from the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish Movements designed to increase disability inclusion in our synagogues for people of all abilities.
  3. Many issues that affect the disability community intersect with other vulnerable populations. Visit the Urgency of Now Resource Center for all the Reform Movement’s most urgent legislative action alerts and resources intended to protect and support the most vulnerable among us.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

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Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
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