This JDAIM, Learning from Those Who Lead by Example

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By Gil Preuss

Did you know that January 26 is Dental Drill Appreciation Day? By chance, I had a dentist appointment that day, where I was surprised to learn that even my dentist did not know this “fun” fact. Appreciation days and months are not a new phenomenon in our society, but as they seem to become more frequent, we sometimes lose sight of why we observe them. In contrast to Dental Drill Appreciation Day, many people are aware that February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM. This year marks JDAIM’s 10th anniversary.

In 2008, the Jewish Special Education International Consortium gathered in Minneapolis, MN and conceived of the first Jewish Disability Awareness Month (the letter “I” for inclusion was added later) with the goal of raising awareness and fostering inclusion of people with disabilities and those who love them. JDAIM offers the opportunity to take stock of where we are in our journey – to evaluate how far we’ve come and recognize how far we have to go – in order to continue our evolution forward.

Among the creators of JDAM was Greater Washington’s own Lenore Layman, then of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and currently Director of Educational Support Services at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Under Lenore’s leadership, local congregations have hosted special awareness Shabbat services, and the community gathered for “Opening the Gates of Torah” programming. At the time, JDAM focused solely on awareness. But we know that we must also focus on inclusion, because those with differing abilities are an integral part of our community.

As the past ten years have shown us, inclusion is a journey – and while we’ve added the “I,” to the annual celebration, our progress towards inclusion has been uneven. In Greater Washington, we pride ourselves on being a community of innovators, and the work taking place in the inclusion arena is a prime example of our achievements.

More than 35 local congregations are actively involved in a collaborative network to advance inclusion. There is a wealth of JDAIM resources and events in our area, including employment workshops, a Special in Uniform program, inclusion Shabbat services and more. Next week, our community will proudly join others on Capitol Hill for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, led by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. And as JDAIM 2018 leads into March, we can look forward to MC Live! A Special Night of Comedy and the JCC of Northern Virginia’s ReelAbilities Film Festival.

But we are not there yet in our inclusion journey. Disability awareness is not simply about becoming more aware of vulnerable members of our society. It is about becoming aware that we still need to include those who remain excluded and working to make their inclusion a reality. As a community, we must ensure that those with differing abilities have the access they need to achieve their goals and to be successful, productive members of our society.

Greater Washington is blessed with individuals who continue to lead by design. Lenore Layman followed Sara Rubinow Simon, a local pioneer in Jewish special education, who championed the needs of individuals. Lenore then expanded those efforts in the day school world and the general community. Other local leaders pooled their talents and efforts towards creating a “tipping point” of educational and social change.

I recently had the opportunity to be inspired by Meredith Englander Polsky, when she was recognized at The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly with the 2017 Covenant Award. From her work as a camp counselor to her leadership at Matan, a non-profit that educates Jewish leaders, teachers and communities to create learning environments that can welcome and support children with special needs, Meredith has demanded that we include those who have been excluded. Meredith is currently Matan’s National Director of Institutes and Training. In 2014, Federation partnered with Matan so that 28 local educators, representing 15 congregations and day schools, could learn from her. Through her work, Meredith not only advocates for children with special needs, but has created educational programs, curricula and lesson plans with all children in mind. She empowers educational directors and teachers to make systemic changes. Meredith recognizes that having a variety of learners in the classroom enhances

the experience for all. Each early childhood program, congregational school and day school that follows Meredith’s lead moves our community another step closer to being more inclusive.

Just a few weeks ago, another leader in our Jewish community, Sunflower Bakery’s Co-Founder Sarah Portman Milner, was recognized as a Washingtonian of the year. Like Meredith, Sarah’s experience included time at Jewish summer camp. After many years of creating and leading the nationally-recognized inclusion camp at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, Sarah co-founded Sunflower Bakery. As the campers Sarah worked with grew into young adults, they entered a world where job opportunities were, and still are, few and far between. Sunflower Bakery teaches adults with disabilities the skills they need to find competitive work in commercial kitchens, restaurants and other food-related businesses. As Sunflower Bakery expanded to open Café Sunflower, Federation’s building got a great coffee shop and Sunflower participants now benefit from learning a new set of skills – customer service, cashier and barista training among them. Employers who hire Sunflower graduates hire employees who can do the job. (On a personal note, I can vouch for this – I’m a frequent customer myself!)

These local leaders encourage us by example, taking disability awareness and inclusion to the next level in our Jewish community. Meredith and Sarah are bringing their vision for inclusive education and employment to life in Greater Washington. We have made progress in our congregations and agencies. We welcome more congregations to get involved with our disability inclusion network, help us update a congregational inclusion chart and to use our free inclusion toolkit. When we make it a priority to include all members of our society in our work, our programs and our events, we all benefit.

As we celebrate these leaders within the community, however, we must recognize a few important facts. We cannot simply hope that others will build the inclusive community we all desire. The work towards full inclusion requires all segments of the community to focus and think through what can be done within each one of our organizations. And, while we set time aside during JDAIM to reflect and focus on what we’ve achieved so far, we cannot simply think about these issues during the month of February. True communal change requires us to address these issues year-round.

We have achieved a great deal over the past ten years, but we must continue to prioritize the significance of this work so that we don’t lose sight of why our achievements are worth celebrating. Together, we can ensure that by JDAIM 2019, we will have collectively taken a year’s worth of steps to lessen stigma facing our neighbors, friends and family members with disabilities and continued the work of advancing inclusion.