Thirty years ago, on July 4, 1984, I made aliyah, armed with a master’s degree in Talmud and some experience in the nonprofit world. Not long after arriving at age 24, I found myself working for Jerusalem Elwyn (now Israel Elwyn), created earlier that year by the Media-based Elwyn Inc., which serves children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
I had always taken pride that my great-uncle, Edward Marcu, was the first blind attorney admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, but I had never really given much thought to the challenges faced by individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities. Little did I know then that my life’s work would be dedicated to ensuring that all Israelis reach their potential and feel truly included in society.
In 1984, the scope and sophistication of support services for people with disabilities in Israel were well behind the United States and Western Europe. Too often, social service agencies approached individuals with disabilities as patients and took a “we know best” approach. The past three decades have witnessed revolutionary changes in Israel, largely outstripping the field in the United States.
Now, Israeli organizations — particularly Israel Elwyn — are looked to as innovators. Our professionals do everything in their power to help individuals with disabilities advance to their greatest personal capacities, advocating for their rights and clearing a path to realize their dreams. In the past, a professional might have almost defined the dream for a person with disabilities. Today, we believe that our job is to provide the tools to make dreams a reality.
These changes have mirrored global advances as well as the maturation of Israel’s overall culture of innovation. My organization alone, for example, has grown from a staff of 12 professionals serving about 80 individuals in Jerusalem to a team of some 1,000 professionals serving 3,000 adults and children throughout the country. We are a leader in Israel in rehabilitation, early intervention, supported living, vocational training and employment services.
Lately, we have blazed a new trail in services for senior adults with disabilities, greatly increasing our ability to meet their needs. Medical advances have allowed individuals with a host of disabilities to live far longer than in the past. Expanded numbers of adults with disabilities in the workforce have created a new population of retirees, many of whom are leaving the workforce not on account of their particular disability, but due to their advancing age.
In November, after years of planning, we opened the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Retiree Center, Israel’s first (certified green) day facility designed and built to exclusively serve disabled people who have retired or are cutting back on work.
Israel Elwyn and Elwyn Inc. parted ways by mutual agreement in 1998, but at least two-thirds of our organization’s board of directors and many of our supporters live in the Philadelphia region. In my travels here and throughout the United States, I’ve learned that synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish organizations have committed to become more welcoming to those with disabilities and to eliminate whatever physical or social barriers prevent full community inclusion.
In both Israel and in the American Jewish community, a true revolution in attitudes and perceptions is taking place, but much more is still needed. The full inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life shouldn’t be viewed as a nice or laudable goal; inclusion is a fundamental civil right and we must treat it as a major civil rights issue.
Too often, individuals only become interested in disabilities when they have a direct, personal connection. Hopefully, through the creation of Jewish Disabilities Month in February, and the high-profile work of some leading Jewish-focused foundations, the message that this is an issue that concerns all Jews is being heard.
Jewish history is full of references to individuals with disabilities. One has to look no further than the patriarch Isaac, who loses his sight, or to the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yosef, who also was blind. The ancient sages demonstrated a tremendous sensitivity to those with disabilities and stressed the dignity of all individuals — because each of us was created in the image of God. Those of us engaged in this work are trying to live up to Judaism’s highest ideals. l
David B. Marcu, the CEO of Israel Elwyn, is a past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, a board member of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and serves on the professional advisory committee for youth and disabilities of Tevet, the employment subsidiary of JDC Israel.