When Governor Jack Markell of Delaware recently inaugurated the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) first Disability Inclusion Initiative, reaching the Gladwellian “tipping point” was paramount in the minds of the 130 participants. The initiative, titled “Opening Abraham’s Tent,” was a day-long program appended to the JFNA’a annual three-day, General Assembly, in Baltimore. Its stated purpose was to “seek ways to build Jewish communities that are more inclusive of individuals with disabilities and their families.”
Markell, who also serves as the chair of the National Governors Association, spoke of his group’s initiative to promote the hiring of people with disabilities. He was asked by the Inclusion Initiative’s co-chair, Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, founder of the Israel Project, what advice he, a Jew and a former board member of his local federation, could offer to the participants, and answered: “Walk the walk; Federations, themselves, must employ the disabled, and help them live more independently. This is the ultimate bi-partisan issue.”
Shelley Richman Cohen, a New York-based disabilities activist, who was the Initiative’s other co-chair, struck an emotional note when addressing the gathering. “This is not chesed, this is not charity,” she insisted, “This is chiyuv, obligation, to find a place under Abraham’s tent for all Jews.” The conference, addressed by leaders in the field of inclusion from across the United States, was divided into four sessions: Acceptance and Welcoming, Accessibility and Accommodation, Innovative Programs, and What is at Stake? Where do we go from here?
At the opening session, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Advisor on Disability Issues of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that the Jewish community has chosen, unconsciously, not to give proper attention to the needs of the disabled. “Where are the Braille prayer books, the sign language interpreters, and accessible buildings? The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates access to public buildings,” she noted, “but it can’t mandate access to the human heart.”
The conference had the feel of a revival meeting, as speaker after speaker fed off the enthusiasm of the others, and a sea of hands went up each time a presentation finished and questions and comments were requested. Jerry Silverman, JFNA’s president, admitted that his participation had made him rethink his organization’s commitment to hiring the disabled and expressed the hope that the professionals and activists populating the conference will “change the culture.”