Two prominent Jewish activists have joined forces for an unexpected cause. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of the activism group The Israel Project, and Donn Weinberg, former chairman of mega-charity the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation (HJWF), have come together to create RespectAbility, a Washington, D.C. based non-sectarian, nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with disabilities to achieve “the American Dream,” by improving employment opportunities for the 57 million citizens with some form of disability.
“This is a kind of civil rights issue,” Weinberg told Tablet last week. “Many [of the disabled] would love to work—have a contribution to make—and we need to help them achieve their dreams to the full extent.” He added that with special accommodations we can employ the highly functioning person with Down syndrome, people with physical disabilities, and people on the autism spectrum, and for those with schizophrenia, he noted, work is “part of the therapy.” Laszlo Mizrahi, RespectAbility’s president, echoed him. “Two decades since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities act, a 70 percent lack of employment for the disabled simply cannot continue,” she said.
In 2002, Laszlo-Mizrahi founded The Israel Project, later described by the Forward as “Israel’s most effective non-governmental public relations agency.” (It is now led by former AIPAC executive Josh Block.) Laszlo-Mizrahi, who is herself dyslexic and could not read or write until the age of 12, is also the mother of two children with disabilities. Her own experiences were the catalyst behind her decision to found RespectAbility this year, and from the start she had her eyes on Donn Weinberg—and the feeling was mutual. “I followed Jennifer’s phenomenal work at TIP for several years, and over that time gained tremendous respect for her and her ability to get things done,” Weinberg told Tablet. “When she decided to start RespectAbility and asked me to be the organization’s founding chairman, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her to help people with disabilities.”
Weinberg’s professional home, the HJWF, where he will continue to serve as executive vice president, corporate counsel and one of its five trustees, is one of the largest private charitable foundations in the U.S., with over two billion dollars in assets; it distributes over one hundred million dollars each year to scores of grantees. According to the instructions of its founder, Harry Weinberg, who died in 1990, more than half of its grants are directed toward programs, services and capital projects provided by or benefitting Jewish organizations in the U.S., Israel, and, through its support for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, wherever there are Jews in economic and physical distress. By charter, the Foundation is prohibited from giving funds to colleges, universities and cultural institutions such as museums and symphony orchestras.
“Our Foundation is a major funder in the field of disabilities, but we don’t fund advocacy organizations,” Weinberg noted, when asked why chose RespectAbility as his first major foray outside the HJWF. “This is a great opportunity for me to utilize my experience at the Weinberg Foundation to assist in raising awareness and consciousness about the disabled.”
Weinberg took pains to point out that his work on behalf of the disabled has a laser-like focus on creating jobs. Although I presented him with the opportunity, he refused to ascribe his efforts to broad-based tikkun olam concerns. The modest and very private leader asserted that it is not so much repairing the world, as solving a very specific problem: “How do we make Americans view people with disabilities not as people who can’t do a job,” he said, “but rather as people with various strengths and abilities that can be tapped.”
Weinberg, who will serve as RespectAbility’s Chairman, cited his new position as a logical outgrowth of his work with the HJWF in service to the disabled, and workforce development. The Weinberg Foundation regularly invests in programs that foster innovations designed to enable people with disabilities to live “a life of their own choosing” including “housing which is deeply-affordable, permanent, accessible, and integrated,” and “job-readiness,” which provides grants to service providers to support training that results in job-placement and job-retention in partnership with employers.” “I think we are at a tipping point,” Weinberg emphasized, “where by bringing to the attention of employers programs that work, we can change people’s minds and remove some of the bias that attaches to the disabled.”
The co-founders stress that there is no secret formula to rectify the situation. Their goal is to change perceptions about the abilities and potential contributions of people with disabilities among decision-makers in government, business, media and local communities. They intend to use public opinion research to understand the challenges faced by the disabled community and communicate to policymakers what people with disabilities can do, rather than what they cannot do. “Today, every family has, in some way been touched by a disability,” said Weinberg. “The growing ranks of children who have been diagnosed with Autism, the veterans returning from foreign wars without limbs or with PTSD, or people with Down Syndrome—have value and can contribute to the productivity of our great nation.”
Laszlo-Mizrahi added: “It’s time for the 57 million of us with disabilities to have the same rights and opportunities as every other American. Polls show that most people with disabilities who are collecting government benefits want to work, but significant obstacles inhibit them from gaining employment. RespectAbility will work to inspire smart public-private partnerships that can save American taxpayers billions of dollars a year as citizens with disabilities get what they want—real jobs for real pay. We want to make a massive revolutionary positive difference.”
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Morton Landowne is the executive director of Nextbook Inc.