JFNA panel urges Jewish philanthropists to do more for disabled community

Keynote speaker Eric Rosenthal says some well-meaning activist groups perpetuate segregation.

Disabled worker 370 (photo credit: akim.co.il)
Disabled worker 370
(photo credit: akim.co.il)
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 address.
“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 society.”
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.
In the introduction, Gail Norry said hessed informs our approach of how to include Jews, including those who are disabled and their families, into the community.
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.”
“Young people are attracted to a community that is engaged in social justice.
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.
After Ruderman 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 Minneapolis.
Christenson said that grants toward disabled people must be properly allocated to ensure that they are served by an organization.
If 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 possibility.
“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 demonstrated.”
Sola Shelly, co-founder of the Autistic Community in Israel said that only when people are open about disability “are we are going to normalize it.”
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.”