Where Are We Now? 10 Years of Jewish Disability Awareness in Inclusion Month

Inside Leadership

Where Are We Now? 10 Years of Jewish Disability Awareness in Inclusion Month

Colorful candles shaped like the number 10 lit atop a birthday cake

A human being mints many coins from the same mold but the Holy One, Blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique. Therefore every single person is obligated to say, “The world was created for my sake.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Looking back over the past 10 years, Jewish communities around the world have embraced Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in February. I never imagined that it would resonate to the extent that it has in Jewish communities of every size, in congregations, at JCCs, Federations, and family service agencies. The synagogue movements participate. We have partnerships with PJ Library, filmmakers and authors. Our partners at the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism started Jewish Disability Advocacy Day nine years ago.

People frequently ask me how many communities participate in JDAIM. I honestly do not know because we don’t have a way to determine this, save for articles about events and programs that I get in my inbox from Google alerts and internet searches. Beyond that, people email flyers and calendars to me, and I get to see the creativity that you bring to raising awareness and voicing expectations.

Inclusion means every person gets to determine where, how, and when he or she participates in the life of the Jewish community. Jewish communal organizations must commit to participation in all programs, events, and offerings to people with disabilities. Organizations have to ask people, “What’s important to you?” and commit to supporting them in their individual Jewish journeys. People with disabilities can and should make decisions about how they participate in Jewish life.

Let us change our thinking. Don’t do things for people with disabilities; do them with people with disabilities. JDAIM is a time to teach our organizations that Inclusion (with a capitol "I") is simply treating people as individuals, not as a group of “those” people whose needs can be met through special programs or occasional visits to synagogues, or community events.

Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is a renewal of our commitment to supporting people with disabilities to belong. Let the momentum take us through the next 11 months and build a genuinely inclusive community.

Someday we won’t convene as a community to raise awareness about including people with disabilities. Let’s look forward to the day when we have eliminated obstacles to belonging to the Jewish community. On that day, we will know the true meaning of being created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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Shelly Christensen, MA, literally wrote the books on inclusion of people with disabilities: her new book, From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities and Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. A popular speaker and leader in the field of disability inclusion and spirituality, Shelly co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) in 2009 and serves as its organizer. She also co-founded the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion at the University of Delaware. 

Shelly has co-chaired Union for Reform Judaism disability committees and presented at numerous URJ Biennials, as well as conferences of both Jewish and disability organizations. She directed the award-winning innovative Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities in Minneapolis for 13 years. She is immediate past president of the Religion and Spirituality Division of AAIDD and is recognized as a fellow for her work in the disability field.

Her writing is featured in numerous blogs and articles, and she is currently co-authoring a children’s book about Jewish inclusion. Shelly and her husband Rick are parents of three adult sons, one of whom was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

Shelly Christensen, MA

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