JDAIM 2016: Finding the Hidden Holiness in Our Communities

January 18, 2016Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W. and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

In Midrash, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, “When a person walks on the road, they are preceded by a company of angels who proclaim: ‘Make way for the image of the Holy Blessed One!’” (Midrash Tehilim 17:8). As Jews, we know all people are created in the image of God, but seeing that Divine presence doesn’t happen simply because we wish it to be so. It takes intentionality to view each person, regardless of his or her differences, as unique and holy.

As a movement, one way we celebrate the holiness in every person is by ensuring that inclusion is at the core of everything we do. Deeply rooted in our commitment to audacious hospitality is the notion that all people should have access to full participation in our synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups, activities, and programs.

Simply put, living with a disability shouldn’t prevent anyone from living a full Jewish life.

This February marks the eighth year the Jewish community will celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness Month, but it’s the first time we’ll celebrate the newly renamed Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Next month, Jewish organizations across North America will highlight the groundbreaking work we’re doing to foster the full inclusion of people with disabilities – and we recommit ourselves to continuing to create accessible communities.

The Union for Reform Judaism has crafted resources for synagogues to further their inclusion efforts. In partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, we offer a robust Disability Inclusion Learning Center, an online portal with more than 30 webinars on topics ranging from inclusion in religious school to inclusive worship services. In these videos, experts from across the continent share some of their most innovative inclusion practices.

Mental illness, too, exists in our communities, even when it is hidden from view. Soon, we’ll be launching a series of live webinars and other resources to advance understanding and to support the full inclusion of people of all ages living with a range of mental illnesses, including depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders.

The Reform Movement is committed to working toward greater levels of accessibility in all of our communities. Here are just a few ways we’re prioritizing inclusion:

At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), we’re working to further the legal rights of people living with disabilities in all aspects of life, supporting bills that will bring us closer to a fully inclusive society. We urge Congress to pass the Transition to Independence Act, legislation that would provide people with disabilities with more opportunities for fully integrated employment at fair wages. We’re also advocating for reauthorization of the Lifeline Respite Care Act, a collection of important respite programs that provide needed time for full-time family caretakers to tend to their own mental and physical health. Such programs will allow family members the time to be the best caretakers possible for their loved ones.

An important opportunity for Reform Jews to raise their voices in Congress is Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) on February 10, 2016. This annual event, hosted by the RAC and the Jewish Federations of North America, brings more than 100 Jewish disability rights advocates to Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress about our Jewish vision of full inclusion. Advocates will hear from disability policy experts on a range of legislative issues and then meet with their members of Congress to advocate for federal support for people living with disabilities. Registration for JDAD 2016 is open, and we hope you will join us.

Inclusion has to be a holistic effort, happening in our congregations, in our communities, and on Capitol Hill. This February, we hope you will foster an even deeper level of inclusion in your community. Download this useful guide with program ideas for congregations. (It also includes recommendations for a JDAIM book group!)

Jewish tradition teaches, “Do not look at the container, rather at what is inside of it” (Pirkei Avot 4:27). Disability can be visible or hidden, but it’s up to us to build communities that celebrate the uniqueness of all individuals. Let February be a reminder of all we have accomplished and the holiness among us all that we have yet to find.

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