Jewish Disability Advocacy Month – A Time for Welcoming

There is no shortage of Jewish values to guide us towards creating communities where everyone is seen, valued, recognized, and included. The Torah teaches that we are created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), a core concept that affirms the equality and dignity of all people. Kavod, respect; Areyvut, communal responsibility; Tzedek, justice; and Tikkun Olam, repairing our broken world – are Jewish values which, when weaved together, provide a roadmap for a fully inclusive, connected, and welcoming Jewish community.

And why is this important? Because if we fail to include people with disabilities in our organizations and communities, we lose not only them but also their entire family from participation in Jewish life.

February is Jewish Disability Advocacy Month (#JDAM)

Led by the Jewish Federations of North America, it is a month of raising awareness through education, solidarity-building, and empowerment in support of people with disabilities. This collaborative effort animates Jewish values through programs offered by partner organizations that inform, break down barriers, and advance policies that empower people with disabilities and foster inclusion nationally and in our local community.

One partner in this effort is Jewish LearningWorks (JLW), whose special needs inclusion programming focuses on ensuring that all children are welcomed, included, and embraced in Jewish educational settings, regardless of their individual needs and learning styles. Their Tips of the Trade series offers best practices for educators and community members alike to help prepare our organizations to meet the differentiated needs of their students. Two sessions are offered in February to coordinate with #JDAM, with the series extending through April.

Tuesday, February 16: Dr. David Neufeld and Ryan Berman, MSW will co-facilitate Talking with Parents About Special Needs

Tuesday, February 23: Elana Naftalin-Kelman, MsED/MSW, and disability inclusion expert Lisa Friedman will host Meeting the Needs of Campers with Special Needs

Visit Jewish Together to view the #JDAM Marketplace of Experiences, including a wide array of interactive programs thought leaders and experts on all aspects of disability inclusion.

According to JLW Senior Educator Liora Brosbe, both Tips of the Trade sessions will provide an opportunity to “learn from experts, engage with peers, conceptualize strategies, and reflect on possibilities to strengthen our approach to teaching the whole child.” JLW’s special needs program is funded in part with up to $50,000 per year from three Federation endowment funds, created through legacy gifts by donors committed to Jewish special education.

“Inclusion is who we are, not simply a thing that we do.”

~ Lisa Friedman, disability inclusion expert

For Rabbi Ezzy Schusterman, Executive Director of Bay Area Friendship Circle, special needs inclusion isn’t focused on just one month of the year. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find an organization that does more to create a warm, supportive, and accepting community where everyone belongs. For over 18 years, Friendship Circle has matched children and teens with special needs with trained volunteer buddies who don’t just offer support, but also genuine friendship.

“We pick up where the schools leave off,” said Ezzy. “A lot of these kids don't have much social interaction or Judaic experiences in which they can participate.” Accordingly, Friendship Circle serves a broad range of participants from across the Peninsula and the South Bay and provides them enriching programs, such as art, music, sports, gatherings in the park, Jewish holiday celebrations, and other opportunities to make personal connections that become life-changing for both participants and volunteers.

During the pandemic, Bay Area Friendship Circle has hosted safe outdoor gatherings in addition to virtual programming

Of course, the impact of the pandemic has not spared either the Friendship Circle or Jewish LearningWorks as the populations they serve need human interaction. Zoom fatigue, as so many of us undoubtedly know, is a real problem. But an opportunity presented itself to help address these obstacles.

Friendship Circle was selected by the Federation as one of 19 organizations to participate in an 18-month cohort focused on Connecting Families and Children in the Time of COVID, which includes a $42,000 grant to create connection and belonging through small group programming for children with special needs, their families, and teen volunteers.

While safe in-person programming is resuming slowly, online programming is also leading to some enormously powerful moments.

A beloved participant in the Friendship Circle family was Zachary Rosenfeld, of blessed memory, who passed away about a year ago. He loved magic, art, juggling, and perhaps most of all, baking cookies with his friends. So last month, Friendship Circle inaugurated an annual “Cookie Day” in Zach’s honor. In addition to celebrating a life that touched so many, the online participants baked cookies and “paid it forward, taking half of their baked goods and giving them to different people with a little note about Zach,” said Ezzy. “Some participants were his friends, some were past volunteers, and some were community members. It was a beautiful, beautiful event that I’ll never forget.”

Zoom cookie bake in Zachary's honor (courtesy of Bay Area Friendship Circle)

For JLW, virtual programming has also opened new doors. “We’ve been able to connect with people with a range of disabilities,” said Liora. “People in wheelchairs, people who may have needed closed captioning, who have been able to participate in our virtual programs when in other circumstances, they might not have been able to – making things more equitable.”

To learn more or participate in Jewish Disability Advocacy Month, visit Jewish LearningWorks and the JDAM website.

Co-authored by Roxanne Cohen, the Federation's Managing Director, Community Impact, and Jon Moskin.


February 08, 2021


Jon Moskin