Israel Elwyn CEO Reflects on Changes in Field With Disability Activists

Members of the Jewish community and disability rights activists pose with Israel Elwyn CEO David Marcu, standing fifth from left.
George Altshuler

When David Marcu started working with people with disabilities, professionals like him would meet periodically to make decisions about the people they were trying to help.

“Today, it’s absolutely a given that all of what we would call case conferences in the old days — all discussions about people — take place with their participation and with their involvement,” said Marcu, the CEO of Israel Elwyn, a nonprofit that provides support for people with disabilities.

Elwyn spoke in Rockville, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., last week at the offices of the advocacy group Respect Ability.

He told the 25 members of the Jewish community and disability rights advocates that in the past, professionals “thought they knew better” than the people they were trying to help.

Now, he said, professionals “need to provide the tools, but they don’t need to provide anything more than that, because we’ve learned that people can make decisions for themselves and people can determine their own future.”

Marcu described in detail Israel Elwyn’s National Self-Advocacy Program, which he said is very much in line with this current approach. The program aims to help Israelis with intellectual disabilities advocate for themselves on a local and national level in Israel.

It consists of 12 local groups, whose participants, with the help of a facilitator, advocate for themselves to mayors, local school systems or the welfare department.

For the past six years, leaders of these local groups have come together to form a national advocacy group that played an important role in getting the Knesset to change Israel’s guardianship laws to give people with disabilities more autonomy in their lives.

It also organizes a national conference.

“One of the things about self-advocacy is that I can pick up the phone and talk to a Knesset member and it has some level of impact, but when a person with intellectual disabilities picks up the phone or shows up for a visit, it has a huge impact,” Marcu said.

Israel Elwyn began as a division of Philadelphia Elwyn, a U.S. nonprofit that originated in the 19th century as a school for people with disabilities. Israel Elwyn’s governing board is based in Philadelphia and most board members are from the Philadelphia Jewish community.

Today, Israel Elwyn works with more than 3,000 people with disabilities, according to its website.

At the Maryland presentation, Marcu also described Israel Elwyn’s Reshet program, which prepares teenagers with disabilities in the regular education system for independence by enabling them to serve in the army, national service or continuing education.

Marcu said that the program is significant in Israel because participation in the military or national service is “such a normative part of society.”

Rhona Reiss, a retired occupational therapist and disability rights advocate, called Reshet “inspirational.” She wondered if such a program would be the same if it were in the United States or if Israeli society’s emphasis on military or national service creates a unique environment for the program.

Marcu emphasized that the program helps its participants focus on preparation for employment.

“There’s no better place to do this than an environment such as military or national service. In both cases you’re getting life experiences that will help you going forward,” he said. 

George Altshuler is a reporter with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.