In many ways, Lior Leibling lives the life of an ordinary 26-year old. Each morning he wakes up in his Bryn Mawr apartment, where he makes himself a good breakfast — chicken patties, usually — before catching the bus. He balances a work schedule with volunteerism, synagogue and a busy social life that includes a girlfriend and a drum circle. “I mostly play djembe,” he says. But, because Lior has Down Syndrome, he has had to work harder than most 26-year olds to achieve his regular life. His journey to independence and community leadership has been the result of self-determination and a strong support system — a story from which many of us could learn.
“A lot of people don’t really know how able someone with Down Syndrome can be when they grow up,” says Stacy Levitan, executive director of the Jewish Federation-supported Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence (JCHAI). “When they hear people like Lior speak, and find out how rich his life is, how much he gives back, it really opens their eyes.”
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), an international initiative now in its 10th year, which is celebrated locally with “JDAIM Shabbat Across Philadelphia:” a month’s worth of services, panels, movies and speakers at over 15 synagogues. Created last year by Jewish Learning Venture’s “Whole Community Inclusion” and the Jewish Disability Inclusion Consortium of Greater Philadelphia (which includes our Jewish Federation), it’s a local commitment to spreading awareness and education. And this year, it includes an opportunity to hear Lior tell his story.
It won’t be Lior’s first time in the public eye: That came at age 13 when his quest to become a bar mitzvah was chronicled in the documentary Praying with Lior. Since then, he has continued to joyfully broaden his world. For the past five years he’s received JCHAI services, starting while still living with his parents in Mt. Airy by working with a JCHAI at Home coach. Lior learned skills like cooking, doing laundry, taking public transportation, and budgeting. JCHAI also linked him with a job coaching and placement program, which found Lior work doing cleaning and food prep. In the meantime, Lior also stayed occupied: earning a certificate from Temple University; participating in the Special Olympics; becoming an active volunteer; and remaining a cherished member of the Jewish community. By the time he moved into the JCHAI Apartments at the Radwyn, where members get individualized levels of supervision, he was ready.
Today Lior continues to learn new skills, including public speaking and self-advocacy. “I like to tell about inclusion,” he explains. And what does inclusion mean to community-minded, people-loving Lior? “That means getting more involved, and building relationships, making friends.”
See Lior Leibling speak on February 10th during Shabbat services at Tiferes B’nai Israel in Warrington. For more information on Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, including a calendar of local events, click here.