Ten years ago, Shelly Christenson started a movement that has grown from touching a few communities to becoming an international effort.
The founder and executive director of Inclusion Innovations created Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and has watched the grassroots effort spread across the country — and the world — with February becoming an opportunity for Jewish communities to learn and grow.
“JDAIM started at a time when including people with disabilities in Jewish life was beginning to appear on community radars,” Christensen wrote in an email. “Over time, JDAIM has focused on serious issues of inclusion and belonging for people with lived experiences of disability and mental health conditions. The purpose of JDAIM is to create a sense of urgency for sustained action all year long.”
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer helped start an initiative to spread that mission through Philadelphia in a new way last year.
This February marks the second JDAIM Shabbat Across Philadelphia, which began after Kaplan-Mayer, director of Whole Community Inclusion (WCI) at Jewish Learning Venture, noticed a need for a wider audience.
WCI leads a consortium of Jewish agencies and organizations across the Greater Philadelphia area that do some type of disability inclusion work. In monthly meetings, professionals from these groups share resources and explore ways to raise awareness around disability and inclusion.
For years, they held a conference, which while fun and exciting, began to become repetitive, Kaplan-Mayer recalled.
“We were mainly reaching the same people who were people who were personally connected to this issue,” she said. “We realized to make change and raise awareness and build a more inclusive community, we need to reach people who aren’t thinking about it on a daily basis and may not have a family member or themselves have a disability.”
From there, JDAIM Shabbat Across Philadelphia was created to encourage synagogues to dedicate one Shabbat sometime during February to this issue.
In its inaugural year, 10 congregations participated. This year, 15 are signed up, which has been “amazing,” she enthused.
Shuls across the area will take creative approaches.
Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El will welcome Rabbi Ruti Regan for a weekend starting Feb. 2 as scholar-in-residence, with programming such as a Shabbat dinner and discussion about “Using Jewish Culture to Understand Autism and Inclusion.”
Andrea Green, a music therapist who also wrote the book and lyrics for On the Other Side of the Fence, will spend a Shabbat evening at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel Feb. 9.
Congregation Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El will dedicate a portable wheelchair-accessible Torah table, donated by three congregants, on Feb. 24.
Sara Crimm, executive director of Families Creating Communities for Adults with Special Needs, will speak at Temple Sholom in Broomall Feb. 23 about her experiences with developing an organization to assist parents of adult children with disabilities.
Kaplan-Mayer will discuss her book, The Little Gate-Crasher: The Life and Photos of Mace Bugen, about her great-uncle born with a form of achondroplastic dwarfism who loved to “photobomb” celebrities, during Old York Road Temple-Beth Am’s eighth annual “Disability Awareness and Inclusion Shabbat” Feb. 16.
The list goes on — a full calendar can be found at jewishlearningventure.org — and features movie screenings, sensory-friendly Purim celebrations, musical services, a disability justice-themed tot Shabbat, a sensory-friendly day at the National Museum of American Jewish History on President’s Day and more.
The consortium created inclusion-focused lesson plans for educators that allow students to also create art pieces that will then be housed in an online gallery. In April, they will be showcased in a show at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service Bala Cynwyd facility.
For Kaplan-Mayer, these events signify a community commitment to spreading awareness.
“It’s important because as much as we’ve made progress, the reality is one in five people has a disability of some kind,” she noted. “And for many years, not just in the Jewish community but in American society, disability has been stigmatized.”
She hopes that with the training they hold for clergy and the many goings-on throughout the month, people will take this issue more personally.
“Another goal is just to create more allies in the Jewish community,” she added, “so that when people leave, they’ll both take this issue in a personal way to heart more, maybe reach out more to people in their community who have disabilities as well as think of themselves as advocates and allies for all these important issues.”
Like Kaplan-Mayer, Christensen foresees a future in which issue awareness won’t be limited to just one month.
“When every Jew who wants to belong is honored and valued for his or her gifts, strengths, skills, talents and choices as a member of the community,” she said, “we will have achieved something that reflects God’s vision for inclusion.”
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