Quest to Be Understood: Jewish Federation’s Commitment to Disability Inclusion

Solvej Berman, 17, and Ezra Hodas, 7, met through the Philly Friendship Circle four years ago. Courtesy of Philly Friendship Circle

The universal quest to be understood is a pursuit escaped by no one.

Solvej Berman, 17, knows this well. Berman spends every Thursday afternoon with 7-year-old Ezra Hodas, a boy living with a disability who struggles to communicate with his peers. Together, Berman and Ezra build Legos, play hide and seek and wrestle in the grass outside on sunny days. But when the pair first met, their dynamic was a far cry from the caring relationship it is now.

Berman met Ezra through Philly Friendship Circle, a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia-supported organization. Created by Chabad-Lubavitch to connect teens and young adults of all abilities and needs and their families, Philly Friendship Circle aims to build inclusive, authentic relationships that cultivate understanding, kindness and responsibility.

Berman has participated in the organization’s Friends@Home program since she was 13 and Ezra was only 3.

“When we first became friends, he didn’t talk much, and when he did, I couldn’t always understand what he wanted and he would get a bit frustrated,” Berman explained. “Now I don’t even notice that communication is difficult for him because I understand his way of expressing himself. We’re able to have complete conversations, like we’re speaking our own secret language. It’s such a joyful part of my week.”

According to the Jewish Federation’s population study in 2019, 178,310 individuals in the Greater Philadelphia area have been diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health condition, and 67,909 individuals are caretakers for someone with a physical health problem or disability.

This past year, the Jewish Federation granted $60,000 to Philly Friendship Circle to help support the critical work it does for these individuals and their families. Chani Baram, co-founder and chief relationship officer of Philly Friendship Circle, says this funding allows them to expand their reach in the community and impact more lives.

“The generous support from the Jewish Federation has helped us to continue offering our flagship programs, such as Sunday Circle and Friends@Home, despite so many obstacles, including a global pandemic,” Baram said. “Our goal is to have more and more youth experience the magic of genuine, inclusive connections, so that in the years to come, the future adults in our community will understand the power of friendship and acceptance, and use this appreciation to ensure that everyone belongs.”

Working toward this sense of belonging is a priority for the Jewish Federation, which granted $285,000 last year to local organizations dedicated to increasing disability inclusion.

“The Jewish Federation is an active participant in public policy advocacy related to disability inclusion in the community and workforce, and a proud partner and funder of many of our region’s critical community organizations serving individuals living with a disability, including Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence, Jewish Learning Venture, Jewish Family and Children’s Service and many more,” stated Brian Gralnick, the Jewish Federation’s director of local grants and partnerships. “We believe that everyone belongs at every table.”

For Berman, creating inclusivity starts at home by actively working towards understanding those around her – beginning with Ezra.

“Ezra makes me feel so loved, especially after a draining week,” Berman said. “At the end of the day, all he wants is not to be judged, because it’s harder for him to communicate in traditional ways. He just wants to have a friend to laugh with, and I always look forward to laughing with him.”


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