30 January 2023
Ruth Shtikan is Federation’s Community Shlicha (Israel emissary) at our partner organization Makom (formerly Jewish Foundation for Group Homes), which supports and empowers people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to achieve the quality of life to which they aspire. Originally from Givatayim, a city in the central region of Israel, Ruth arrived in Greater Washington in September 2022 as one of the first Jewish Agency for Israel shlichim to be placed at this type of organization. Drawn to the world of social change and education, Ruth is providing people with disabilities in our community a unique chance to learn about Israel and Israeli culture through immersive, fun programming.
Tell us where you’re from in Israel and how you came to be part of Federation’s Community Shlichim (Israeli emissary) Program in Greater Washington?
I am originally from Givatayim, a city in the central region of Israel. I have always been drawn to the world of social change and leading educational projects. It started in high school, where I was a youth coordinator, and after graduation from high school, I did my national service in a village for at-risk youth. In 2018, I started studying behavioral sciences at Ariel University.
After finishing my degree, I worked for about a year in human resources at Beit Ekstein, the leading organization in Israel for people with special needs. I had a brief prior connection with this community, and I learned that I enjoyed working in this field.
I started looking for a job that was more suitable for me and my professional development when I received an offer from the Jewish Agency for Israel to join the Federation’s Community Shlichim Program here in Greater Washington and engage the community in education about Israel. I soon learned that a new position working with people with disabilities opened up with an organization called Makom (previously Jewish Foundation for Group Homes), which supports people with disabilities to achieve a high quality of life, and it was clear to me that it was what I wanted to do.
It is important to note that working with people with disabilities is new to the Jewish Agency, and we are learning together the right way to educate about Israel in this unique space.
How does your experience working with Beit Ekstein help you work with the disability community in Greater Washington?
Beit Ekstein sharpened my understanding that there is a place for everyone in Israeli society and the world; we all have our unique differences that should be respected. This organization believes that people with disabilities should be an integral part of our society, including those who need residential support, employment training, and other educational programs. Working in an organization like this inspires me to improve our society by being a person who sees the other, who lends a hand when needed, and by respecting and seeing a person’s difference not as something that creates distance, but as a reason to embrace diversity and create a better society.
Naturally, I bring this perspective to my work in the Greater Washington community – both in the way I prepare the activities and events and in my one-on-one communications — by seeing the needs in the field and adjusting so that everyone can enjoy and actively participate in the experience without feeling left out. When I’m working with the community, I keep reminding myself that we all face different difficulties, and we all want to be seen and respected.
Tell us about a program you’ve created for the Makom community that you’re really proud
I arrived in the United States in September 2022 and started my position during the High Holidays. In Israel, you can feel Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot in the air – the Sukkot decorations, the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn used for Jewish religious ceremonies) early in the morning, the noise of children playing on the days off from school, and more. I thought about my work as a shlicha (Israeli emissary) and asked myself: what part of the atmosphere around the High Holidays in Israel can I bring to the individuals we support? What is something essential that can also fit into their lives here? This is where the idea came to do a Sukkah (a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot) decorating workshop where residents made decorations in a creative and experiential way. It was a lot of fun, interesting, and exciting. Later, I visited the group homes and got to the decorations they made for their homes and felt that I managed to bring a touch of the holiday atmosphere that exists in Israel to the organization and the Makom community.
How do you teach about the diversity of people and cultures in Israel to a community that has different levels of awareness and knowledge about Israel? What are the challenges?
In every community, there will always be people who are more knowledgeable about Israeli culture or Judaism, and people who know less. I see this challenge as part of my role as shaliach either way. I’ve learned from other shlichim as well; how to make activities accessible to all levels of knowledge and prepare my activities in several variations so they fit with different audiences.
For example, on Chanukah, I did a game night on Zoom that included quizzes about the Chanukah story. Of course, some people new and participated more than others, but part of my role is to make sure to give space to participants who are less familiar and knowledgeable. And I tried to do it in a way that ensures everyone can learn something from the games in an experiential way.
Another example is an activity I did for Yitzhak Rabin (Israel’s fifth Prime Minister) Memorial Day. The activity was intended for an audience that was familiar with events related to peace efforts in the Middle East but, in practice, I encountered different groups of people with varying levels of knowledge. And, as I said, part of my job is to be prepared for such scenarios. The quick solution was to change the activity from a place of more historical knowledge to meet people where they were. So, instead of talking about peace efforts, I focused on tolerance and respect for others, and how we make our society better and more inclusive. The activity was in small groups, and it turned out that each group really took the activity to a place that was more relevant for them. For example, one group said they remember the day Rabin was assassinated; another group wanted to hear more about Rabin’s history as Chief of Staff and the Western Wall. Working with a population and different levels of knowledge is challenging, interesting, and surprising every time, and I really enjoy working this way.
Tell us about the way Israel integrates people with disabilities in schools, workplaces, and other programs?
From my experience in Israel, there are many inspiring initiatives that allow people with disabilities to be integrated into all aspects of life. I have met people with disabilities at work, at my nephews’ schools, in youth movements, and in assisted living apartments integrated within the community. Additionally, there are many nonprofit organizations that elevate the quality of life of people with disabilities in a variety of ways. For example, there are summer camps for people with disabilities run by volunteers like teenagers from a youth movement. Throughout the year, there are different organizations that also offer fun activities such as day trips, adapted hikes, entertainment, and more — all accessible and inclusive.
What does 75 years of Israeli independence mean to you? Do you have any special plans for the Makom community to celebrate this important anniversary?
For me, Israeli Independence Day is exciting every year, especially from a personal perspective. My parents made Aliya (immigration to Israel) from the former Soviet Union and taught us to appreciate the existence of the country and not to take it for granted.
Independence Day is a moment to celebrate the existence of a place where the Jewish people can live safely and freely with their Jewish identity; to celebrate the existence of the State of Israel in our historic land and the right to deepen our roots, and; to celebrate the knowledge that we have a country rich in cultures that each person brings with them in a unique way.
I’m very proud of 75 years of Israeli productions, technological progress, scientific discoveries, and more. But, above all, I celebrate the fact that wherever Jewish people are, they’ll always have a place to call home.
It’s exciting to be a shlicha and to teach about Israel during this celebration, and I hope I can share the importance with the community of Makom to create unique events to mark this special milestone.