A panel of speakers challenged the Jewish community to improve how they support
people with disabilities at the Jewish Federation of North America’s (JFNA)
General Assembly on Monday.
The panel included Eric Rosenthal, the
executive director of Disability Rights International, and Jay Ruderman,
president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“We now know all people with
disabilities can be part of society,” Rosenthal said in his keynote
“What we find throughout much of the world and what I have found
here in Israel, is that many of the donors, many of the wellmeaning charities,
many of the people acting out of the principle of hessed [lovingkindness], who
think they are helping, may indeed be hurting if they perpetuate segregation by
giving money to programs that separate people from society who can be part of
The aim of this session, titled “The Moral Mandate: Why
Disability Inclusion Matters and How to Achieve It,” was to explore how hessed
promotes disability inclusion in Israel and North America.
introduction, Gail Norry said hessed informs our approach of how to include
Jews, including those who are disabled and their families, into the
It shows us how to treat the “stranger.” Norry – who is the
mother to an autistic child – is the president of the National Woman’s
Philanthropy of the JFNA.
However, others on the panel stressed that the
answer exceeds just hessed.
“This is a much larger issue,” Ruderman said.
“The problem, I think, in general with the Jewish community, is that we look at
disability as a fringe issue, as an outside community and not one that’s part of
all of us.”
To contest this attitude, Ruderman argued that inclusion of
disabled people is already a part of two popular concerns of Jewish
philanthropic organizations, “continuity” and “social justice.”
people are attracted to a community that is engaged in social
Inclusion is a part of social justice. Our community is not good
at including people on the fringes,” Ruderman said. “[It] is not an attractive
community for younger people to join, a community that deals with exclusion.
Unless the Jewish community changes its nature and becomes more inclusive, you
turn away the people you’re looking to attract.”
He also said that
including people with disabilities in synagogue and community life, day schools,
and trips to Israel is consistent with continuity.
mentioned that other philanthropists admitted to him that they don’t contribute
to disabilities, Shelly Christenson debunked that philanthropy for those who are
disabled is expensive or complex. She is the author of “Jewish Community Guide
to Inclusion of People with Disabilities,” and is the award-winning program
manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with
Disabilities at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of
Christenson said that grants toward disabled people must be
properly allocated to ensure that they are served by an organization.
that can’t be achieved, she said there must be training available to enable the
organization to be inclusive.
Avital Sandler also said more services
should be provided that support people with disabilities living independently,
and more legislation should be drafted for more allocations to make this a
“We as a society in Israel and the United States have to
take this as a challenge,” she said.
Sandler is the director of Israel
Unlimited, which develops community-based support systems for adults with
disabilities who are living in their communities.
“As long as we keep
disability as a secret, the prevalence of disability and the rights of people
and the ability of people to be part of society is not
Sola Shelly, co-founder of the Autistic Community in
Israel said that only when people are open about disability “are we are going to
Rosenthal, who was a central player in the adoption of the
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said that the Jewish
community in particular should be interested in stopping the
institutionalization of the disabled.
“As a Jewish people, in one
generation from the Holocaust, we have also seen what happens when individuals
are treated as less than human. I believe that we should not only understand
from our experience the risk of those who are most vulnerable but also see our
own vulnerability. If any one person can be dehumanized. So can we all.”