At JOI, we tend to focus on creating an open and welcoming Jewish community for intermarried couples and unaffiliated Jews, though our work extends well beyond those parameters. Through our Big Tent Judaism coalition, we also advocate for children of intermarriage, mixed heritage Jews, LGBT Jews, and all those who find themselves on the periphery. In a moving op-ed in the (New York) Jewish Week, Rabbi Dov Linzer and Devorah Zlochower remind of us another demographic that is too often pushed to the margins: children with “invisible disabilities.”
Rabbi Linzer and Zlochower define “invisible disabilities” as “learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome and other tic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, mood disorders and behavioral disorders.” Both have children who fall into this category, and both are extremely frustrated at the lack of inclusive policies in the Jewish community for children with similar disabilities. They write:
While there have been a number of stories in the Jewish media recently about the rare programs that do exist, more often, families like ours hear that such programs are too expensive and serve too few children to make them viable. We in turn have pulled away from the community in our search to have our children’s needs met…
The truth is that we and our children need the support and acceptance of our community. We have asked for help in the past, but we have been told “no” so many times that by now we feel it is futile to ask. And we are angry — angry because our children survive by our advocating for them, and advocacy is not always pretty.
Our synagogues and our Jewish communal institutions need to become safe spaces where we can bring our children, confident that their behavior will be tolerated or, better yet, understood. Our children are entitled to learn and live their Jewish heritage, and they cannot fully do so if they continue to exist at the margins of the Jewish community.
We addressed just this issue specifically during our recent conference in Philadelphia, inviting Limor Hartmann, who runs the D.C. area’s Shalom BBYO program for teens with special needs, to share her best practices for making sure these children are seen as valuable members of the Jewish community.
In a blog post on Jewschool.com, it’s mentioned that if these two Jewish communal leaders are having a difficult time finding open doors, just imagine how much harder it must be “for everyone else struggling with similar issues.”
The impassioned remarks of Rabbi Linzer and Zlochower remind us that much more should be done. They suggest rabbis teach the Jewish values of inclusion (“The stone the builders rejected has become our cornerstone”). Synagogues should try to figure out how existing programs can be modified “to meet the needs of our children.” But they put it most eloquently at the end when they say to simply “speak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls that they are.”