As the mother of a 16-year old autistic son, Gabrielle Kaplan-Meyer understands the way disabilities can pose challenges for families partaking in Jewish communal life. “For example, Purim is loud and wonderful,” says Gabrielle, Director of Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion, supported by our Jewish Federation. “But from a sensory perspective it can be overwhelming to walk into a place with that much stimulation.”
Gabrielle’s family is far from alone. According to the U.S. Census, one in five people has some kind of learning, cognitive, physical and/or developmental disability. Mindful of the need to make Jewish communal life welcoming to people of all abilities, Whole Community Inclusion was formed to make Jewish programming accessible for families raising kids with special needs. That includes creating sensory-friendly jkidphilly programs (like a Purim party with the noise level turned down, or with a designated “quiet space”); expanding education for synagogue leaders and early childhood educators; compiling downloadable lesson plans and resources; and advocating on behalf of special needs families through the Jewish Disability Inclusion Consortium of Greater Philadelphia, a group which includes our Jewish Federation.
And every February, Whole Community Inclusion programming kicks into high gear. February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), an international initiative now in its 11th year, celebrated locally with “JDAIM Shabbat”: a month’s worth of services, panels, movies and speakers at more than 20 synagogues across the region. Rabbi Phil Warmflash, Executive Director of Jewish Learning Venture, points out that the awareness raised on JDAIM Shabbat ultimately benefits everyone. “In order to create truly inclusive communities, all community members need to better understand the complex issues facing people with disabilities—whether this personally impacts their family or not,” he says. Or, as Whole Community Inclusion’s JDAIM downloadable coloring book for kids puts it:
It’s important to think about how you like to be treated and treat your friends that way. Be kind!
When you take time to understand friends who are different from you, you are showing kindness/hesed. That is an important Jewish value.