There’s not just one way to be Jewish.
It’s true for everyone, Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer believes, but it’s the cornerstone of her work to make Judaism more accessible to young people, particularly those with disabilities.
As chief program officer of Jewish Learning Venture and director of JLV’s Whole Community Inclusion, Kaplan-Mayer, 51, has spent the last decade providing guidance to synagogues, parents and Jewish organizations on how to increase accessibility in the Jewish community; championing Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month programming in Philadelphia; and writing and publishing multiple books on disability inclusion.
On June 15, the Covenant Foundation, an organization dedicated to honoring and supporting Jewish educators, announced Kaplan-Mayer as one of three recipients of the Covenant Foundation Award for her commitment to improving accessibility in Jewish education.
“I felt excited that this honor could bring more recognition to what our mission at Jewish Learning Venture is, both in terms of, specifically the work I’ve led around the Whole Community Inclusion, but also, I was aware that it could bring that recognition to the larger agency,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
Originally a merging of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education and the Jewish Outreach Partnership, JLV has maintained its roots of giving more young Jews the opportunity to engage in a Jewish education, but it has evolved to focus on ways in which Jewish organizations can better provide opportunities for Jewish children on the margins.
Though Kaplan-Mayer has focused on children with disabilities during her time at JLV since 2011, she hopes to expand the organization’s reach to better include Jews of color and young LGBTQ Jews in upcoming jkidPRIDE and jkidforall programs.
Kaplan-Mayer’s foray into the world of Jewish accessibility was one of necessity. Working at the Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist synagogue Mishkan Shalom in 1998 and the ACAJE from 2001-2003, Kaplan-Mayer realized though well-intentioned, she lacked the skills to fully address the needs of children with disabilities with whom she worked.
She remembers one child who struggled with his sensory system being overwhelmed. He would suddenly run to the bathroom and run the water to calm himself down. In hindsight, Kaplan-Mayer understands that this was a self-soothing activity. But now she knows how to incorporate breaks or provide weighted blankets or other objects to help meet students’ needs.
Her son’s autism diagnosis after his birth in 2003 further drove Kaplan-Mayer to pursue accessibility in Jewish spaces.
“I was just like the typical Jewish educator — I didn’t have knowledge!” Kaplan-Mayer said. “And then after my child was diagnosed with autism, and I wanted him to have a Jewish education, I suddenly realized, oh, let’s really give people tools.”
She was able to give her son George Kaplan-Mayer, 19, a bar mitzvah celebration catered to him, but she also recognized the different ways in which people find meaning in Judaism. For George Kaplan-Mayer, spiritual meaning came from the little moments in between the big celebrations.
“The depth of his Jewish life is the everyday moments of what Judaism is: You sing a song; you say a prayer; you light the Shabbat candles,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “I knew that his intellectual disability did not mean that he didn’t have a spiritual life.”
The foundation of her and JLV’s work is meeting people where they are. If a young person wants to make challah or latkes for five minutes or listen to just one Jewish song, it has the potential to be spiritually fulfilling to them.
“Our spiritual lives are not the same as our intellectual lives,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “Once you grasp that, you have a much deeper access to, I think, spiritual curiosity.”
Kaplan-Mayer graduated from Emerson College in 1993 with a bachelor’s in creative writing and theater. She got her master’s degree at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote in 2001. Though a teacher for much of her life, Kaplan-Mayer’s training in divergent thinking through creative writing and “reading the room” through theater gave her the skills to become a leader at JLV along with the organization’s team of educators.
JLV’s focus on creativity allowed them to be nimble throughout the pandemic; it’s what Kaplan-Mayer believes is the key to keeping an open mind and staying true to JLV’s mission.
“We as human beings put such enormous limitations on what we can do,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “Thank God that creativity comes, or maybe creativity is, through God.”