Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is a special initiative observed during the month of February to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. A number of exceptional English-speaking immigrants have made unique contributions to Israeli society in this area, including Chana Zweiter, Beth Steinberg, and Kalman Samuels, all previous recipients of the Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize, which recognizes the achievements of outstanding “Anglo Olim” and their contributions to the State of Israel.
Samuels, the 2018 awardee in the Community and Non-Profit category, moved to Israel from Vancouver in 1983, and established Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, together with his wife Malki. What began as a small program in a rented apartment developed into round-the-clock programs for 2,000 individuals at the Shalva National Center. Shalva provides a wide range of services for thousands of people with disabilities from infancy to adulthood and their families.
CHANA ZWEITER, a 2015 Bonei Zion recipient for Education, arrived in Israel in 1991 already with a rich record of accomplishment in the field of inclusion. In 1983, she had founded Yachad, which became a thriving global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of all Jewish individuals with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in every aspect of Jewish life.
“When I made aliyah in the summer of 1991 from Riverdale,” she says, “I wanted to apply my experience and knowledge in the field of inclusion here in Israel.”
She began by creating after-school programming that brought kids with special needs together with children from the regular educational track for sports, art, and social activities. The original name of the organization she created was the Rosh Pina Mainstreaming Network.
In May 1991, after Operation Solomon, in which Israel brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the schools that Zweiter was already servicing requested her assistance in helping integrate the newly arrived Ethiopian students into the classes.
“I did a lot of research,” she recalls, “and found the common denominators between bringing together kids with special needs and kids from the general track. We applied it to Ethiopian integration, and we were very successful.” Shortly thereafter, she applied these same principles to Arab and Jewish student populations in Lod and Ramle, as well as to groups of secular and religious school students. On the heels of these accomplishments, Zweiter changed the name of her organization from Rosh Pina to Kaleidoscope, which represents an appreciation for diversity, just as a kaleidoscope harmoniously displays diverse colors and shapes.
Today, Kaleidoscope, which is based in Lod, operates programs in schools throughout the country, from Haifa, Acre and Beit She’an, to Ramle and Jerusalem, and by Zweiter’s estimate, has worked with approximately 45,000 students, parents, and teachers during its existence.
Zweiter explains that while the programming has to be fine-tuned and individualized for different groups, “the idea is that we want to develop the skills and attitudes to respect each other even when we disagree with one another.” When it comes to mainstreaming, Zweiter says, “We make sure that everyone can be equal and do it in the same level, and at the same pace. It’s not doing hessed [an act of kindness] with kids for special needs. It’s real inclusion.”
In addition to overseeing Kaleidoscope, Zweiter assists new immigrants from Nefesh B’Nefesh families with special needs. “Families have to understand what they need, and how the process works,” she says. “I take them by the hand, and I walk them through the process.”
Zweiter recalls a case of a young girl with Down’s Syndrome from a Nefesh B’Nefesh family that moved to Israel some 15 years ago. At the time, Zweiter helped the girl and the family with their absorption and dealing with her needs. Recently, she was able to assist the girl, now an adult, receive employment with Nefesh B’Nefesh, where she works in their main office.
“Inclusion is something that I’ve been dedicated to for my whole adult life,” says Chana Zweiter. “It’s part of my soul and who I am.”
BETH STEINBERG, the 2017 Bonei Zion recipient for Community and Non-Profit, made aliyah in 2006 from Brooklyn. The following spring, Steinberg, who has a son with Down’s Syndrome, asked some of her other friends who were parents of special needs children, “What do you do with your child during summer vacation?” They replied, “It’s a catastrophe.” This answer spurred Steinberg, together with her friend Miriam Avraham, to found Shutaf, an organization which offers inclusion programs in Jerusalem for children, teens, and young people, with and without disabilities.
Steinberg recalls, “Miriam and I saw in each other kindred spirits. We had both grown up in Jewish camping movements in the United States. We both felt that not only was there a dearth of quality camping in this country, but there was a dearth of quality inclusion, certainly in informal education. The Jewish world is particularly unfriendly to people with disabilities. We’re only now beginning to accept the fact that Jews have disabilities, too. That’s essentially where we started.”
Steinberg chuckles, and says, “Here in Israel, when you have an idea, people say ‘Why don’t you do it?’ We said, ‘Let’s answer some of the needs of our own kids and some of their friends.’”
Shutaf began with 10 children in the summer of 2007, running a mixed disabilities camp, consisting of children who had a variety of disabilities together with children without disabilities. Over the years, the numbers increased, and today, 12 years later, Shutaf (www.campshutaf.org) operates two camps annually – one before Passover and one during the summer, which last year, had an enrollment of almost 150 children. The summer camp is held in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood and the pre-Passover camp is located in Beit Hakerem. In addition to the camps, Shutaf operates teen programs three evening a week at its Talpiot headquarters, and they have recently started a new program for adults ages 21-30, which meets one evening per week.
“We have grown an organization from zero to $650,000 a year, mostly funded by private giving, federations and foundations here in Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom,” Steinberg says. “It is time for the Jewish community to stand up and recognize that 15% of the world’s population has some kind of disability, including the Jewish community,” she says. “Everyone matters.”
Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and the Jewish National Fund-USA, salute English-speaking immigrants who have made a difference in Israel in inclusion and disability awareness.
This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh.