JOI established the Big Tent Judaism Coalition as a way to bring together organizations across the globe that all shared a common goal: to create an inclusive and welcoming Jewish community. Specifically, this means doing more to welcome in folks who have traditionally experienced barriers to participation, including intermarried families, children of intermarriage, Jews-by-Choice, and LGBT Jews. While much is being done to help better integrate these folks in the Jewish community, one segment of the population is all too often overlooked, except by a dedicated few – Jews with special needs.
Writing in eJewishPhilanthropy.com, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Director of the National Ramah Commission, believes this is something of a travesty. “Despite all of the 21st century political correctness in our discourse, public accommodations in our infrastructure and spirit of inclusiveness in our society, those with special needs… are still locked out of so many moments of meaningful involvement and growth.”
The time for inaction has passed, he writes, as evidenced by the recent meeting of funders who gathered to discuss the issue of inclusion of special needs Jews in our community. ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference brought together philanthropists, federation and foundation leaders from all over the world to actively work on building a more “inclusive support system for Jews who are disabled or have special needs.” ADVANCE was the first-ever funders conference focused entirely around this issue. Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said:
Hundreds of thousands of Jews in the U.S. with physical and/or mental disabilities must forfeit their Jewish experience because too many of our institutions – day schools, camps, vocational training centers, synagogues – are ill-equipped to accommodate special needs. For a people who value fairness, inclusivity, and continuity, it’s unacceptable that so many of our own are turned away in this manner. At the ADVANCE conference, we hope to inspire collaboration in which private funders, Federations, and professionals can actively bring populations with special needs back into the fold of Jewish life.
The important awareness of making the Jewish community more accessible for those with special needs is becoming a higher and higher priority. February has become Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, and a recent article in the Chicago Tribune noted that increasingly, “synagogues are opening the doors to [bar and bat mitzvahs] for special needs children, catering programs and celebrations to their abilities.” This is a trend we’re thrilled to see expand, and we hope this conference will energize more in the Jewish community to find new and innovative ways to welcome all under our Big Tent.