Inclusion has become the latest buzzword in the Jewish community. It is used among those advocating for a broad pro-Israel tent, by those grappling with how to reach an increasingly unaffiliated and alienated younger population and by those seeking a more welcoming environment for individuals with special needs.
In all instances, it suggests a value of seeking to embrace Jews who might be perceived beyond the mainstream. But while the debates about the pro-Israel tent and even reaching out to the intermarried and unaffiliated continue to divide our community, when it comes to those with special needs, there should be no debate.
An estimated 20 percent of North American Jewry is comprised of people with disabilities yet our Jewish institutions are still struggling to accommodate this population.
To be sure, our community — nationally and locally — has come a long way in recognizing the importance of opening up our institutions and our funds to those with intellectual and physical disabilities. Programs at synagogues and schools have evolved; organizations like Jewish Family and Children’s Service, JCHAI and JEVS provide programming and resources, and many congregations have launched inclusion committees not only to bring awareness to the issue but also to take concrete steps to make their communities more welcome.
Still, much more needs to be done.
A more concerted effort is needed to develop leaders, professional and lay, who are equipped to foster a more inclusive environment in our schools, synagogues, camps and communal organizations.
The creation several years ago of the Jewish Special Needs Consortium was an important step in getting organizations focused on this issue to work together. Advocates from more than a dozen groups in the region have met regularly to ensure that the special needs community gets the attention it deserves even amid difficult economic times and other communal challenges.
On Sunday, Dec. 15, the consortium, in conjunction with the Jewish Learning Venture, will hold its fourth annual “Opening the Gates of Torah,” a conference that has become an opportunity for communal professionals and families alike to explore special needs issues and share resources. (For information and to register, go to: jewishlearningventure.org.)
There was a time not so long ago that parents of special needs children had few resources to turn to in our community. That is changing, but there’s still a long road ahead.
This goal of inclusion is one upon which we should all agree: the need to find a welcoming home for all who seek it, regardless of one’s ability or disability.