How many Israelis live with disabilities? The answer might surprise you. About 1 million Israelis, or 25 percent of the working-age population, have at least one disability, according to a report by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
And almost half of those people have more than one disability. About 200,000 child have a disability, and 40% of these children have multiple disabilities.
The issue of inclusion is central to a vibrant Jewish life, not only in the US where we give the topic a lot of lip service, but also in Israel. While the Jewish community has many issues that need fixing and important matters to be grappled with, inclusion of all members of our community should be something that we can all agree on.
The issue of inclusion of people with disabilities first came to the forefront for me in 2006 when I traveled on a Yeshiva of Flatbush alumni “chesed” (kindness) mission to Israel. The tour, run by Rabbi Naftali Besser, brought us to several places at which we could give back to the State of Israel: soup kitchens, army bases, etc. It also included a stop at ALEH Jerusalem, which is Israel’s largest and most sophisticated network of care for severely disabled children.
Since that visit, my family’s life has never been the same. We have gone back to visit every year to volunteer.
For my son’s bar mitzvah trip, he chose to stop at ALEH even before going to the Kotel. As part of the celebration, we made a dedication at the recently expanded ALEH Jerusalem facility, which provides medical and care-giving services, rehabilitation and therapy, schooling, specialized equipment, food, clothing and hygiene maintenance to 80 youth residents, all with the most severe physical and developmental disabilities.
ALEH focuses on offering “normal” experiences to children with special needs, ensuring that while residents may require special accommodations, they experience Jewish life the same as other children their age.
ALEH is not the only example of an organization that supports people with disabilities in Israel. There are SHALVA, and Achla and Akim, among others.
And they all do great work and they are all necessary and important.
But what are you doing? What am I doing? As advocates for the Jewish state and as Jewish leaders, we have to ask ourselves: Why should some children have the advantage of a Jewish education, play and youth groups, while others are denied it? We have to press ourselves: Do we see the disability or the child? It can be costly to be inclusive, to ensure every Jewish child is entitled to a Jewish upbringing – Jewish friends, synagogue attendance, a bar or bat mitzvah experience. Yet we need to find the funds, because equal opportunity is what we should be about as a people.
Do you know that children with disabilities are not well-integrated into the workforce? According to the JDC report, about half of working-age adults with disabilities work. Many more report that they want to. If we start young, maybe we can shift that statistic.
I don’t believe the underlying cause of our lack of inclusion is malice, but rather lack of education. We don’t as a Jewish people have a true understanding of what it means to be inclusive (although we throw around the term) and we have accepted this ignorance.
It is important to dispel the myths and ignorance around disabilities, especially around developmental disabilities, which are harder to see than physical disabilities. Just saying this, telling people to stop being ignorant, does little.
Instead, we must take the step of embracing those with disabilities, getting to know them. Anyone can do what we did and volunteer at ALEH. Or you can find another organization – in Israel or wherever you live – that has a similar mission.
And then we must work together, giving of our time and money, to find practical approaches to building a more inclusive Jewish community. It is not words, but actions, that will demonstrate that we are here for all Jewish children with disabilities – for them and their families. We must find ways to support people with the severest of disabilities in being a part of our community.
This is what inclusion is all about.
The author works in retail in New York and is the father of five children. He participates annually in a volunteer mission to Israel.