The founder of a national organization working toward making the Jewish community more welcoming to those with special needs told a local audience that great strides have been made in the past 10 years, but Jewish institutions remain woefully behind the curve.
Shelley Richman Cohen, founder of the Jewish Inclusion Project and an active member of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, said, “Here we have Jewish people with disabilities, clamoring for affiliation, but who are being cast adrift by a community that is either fearful or uninformed about how to include to them.
“Each and every one of us,” she added, “needs to play a part in changing the direction of this tragedy.”
Cohen was the keynote speaker at the fifth Opening the Gates of Torah symposium held at Chabad of Montgomery County in Fort Washington. The conference was sponsored by the Jewish Learning Venture, along with the Jewish Special Needs Consortium, a broad-based working group consisting of 14 agencies.
Exactly 92 people attended the Dec. 15 afternoon program, including synagogue and day school educators, camp officials, parents of special needs children and teen volunteers.
Cohen’s organization works with rabbinical students across the denominational spectrum to prepare future religious leaders on how to work with individuals with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.
She pointed to the 2010 U.S. Census, which found that nearly 19 percent of the population has some kind of disability or special need. In addition to being religiously obligated to be inclusive, she said, Jewish institutions have to do so to attract enough people to survive.
“Where are these fellow Jews?” she asked, adding that most synagogues and schools can’t claim that a fifth of their participants have special needs.
Cohen’s son, Nathaniel, suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and, at the age of 8, lost the ability to walk. He died six years ago at the age of 21.
When he was growing up, Cohen said, every single Jewish day school in Manhattan refused to admit him, saying his disability was too severe and he couldn’t be accommodated. After months of cajoling, she said, an Orthodox school admitted him to its mainstream program. Nathaniel, she said, had a profound effect upon his teachers and fellow students.
The landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act led to great strides in terms of public schools becoming a viable option for many disabled students, Cohen said. But the act exempted religious institutions, and Jewish day schools have only taken steps to become more accommodating in the last decade or so.
Now, she noted, day schools and camps have progressed further than synagogues, which have the most catching up to do.
Cohen’s top priority, she said, is changing the mindset of the Jewish community and convincing those who aren’t confronted with special needs challenges that this is one of the paramount issues in Jewish life today.
The community, she said “is always focused on the best and the brightest. That has really left a lot of people by the wayside.”