A Year’s Worth of Disability Awareness Programs

JDAMlogo2011.JPGWhen Temple Jeremiah was founded 50 years ago, one of the primary goals of the Temple was to create a place where interfaith couples, families, and Jews-by-Choice were welcomed and celebrated as members of the Temple community. Since then, inclusion has continued to be a core value of our Temple community. It remains not only implicit in our community through our mindset and as a founding principle of the Temple, but explicitly in the way we plan our programs and the way in which we welcome new members and guests into our Temple family.

The same principle of inclusion that guides the place of interfaith couples and families within our community has led us to inclusion of the GLBT community, openness to ethnic diversity, and welcoming of people with mental and physical disabilities. This final note–inclusion of people with mental and physical disabilities–has been consistent throughout the Temple’s existence, yet it has become a particular focus in recent years, felt in both our physical space and through our programming. The renovation of our Temple building that began in 2001 enabled us to make the space as inclusive and accessible as possible. In fact, Temple Jeremiah received recognition for its building renovations in April of 2003, when the New Trier Township awarded its “Excellence for Service to Persons with Disabilities” plaque to Temple officials. Likewise in 2007, with the help of a grant from the Pathways Awareness Foundation, the Temple was able to install handicapped accessible doors at its south entry, yet another step in making our house of worship completely accessible to all.

Temple Jeremiah has participated in Jewish Disability Awareness Month in the past through programming and education, and this year our social action committee has taken on this focus as our Social Action Initiative for 5771. Almost every Temple group and committee is engaged in some level of programming and awareness work: A recent youth group shul-in focused on disabilities awareness, and our youth group members wrote letters to their senators and representatives about issues of importance to people with disabilities. Our Sisterhood is fundraising to provide materials for a sensory room at a local organization aiding individuals of all ages with disabilities, and our Adult Education committee is planning a special Torah study focusing on how the wisdom of our Torah can relate to the modern challenges of individuals with disabilities. Though inclusion of people with disabilities has been a value of our congregation for some time, growing from our founding principle of inclusivity, this year of programs is meant to aid our Temple family in becoming more aware, educated and intentional about inclusion of this valuable segment of our community.

Two particular programs come to mind that are worth highlighting, one that occurred over the High Holy Days and one that is coming up in the spring. One of our Temple traditions is that during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, in lieu of an official sermon, a few congregants are invited to give brief speeches, or divrei torah, on topics that are meaningful to the community. This year, we invited a few individuals who have family members with disabilities to speak about their experiences. One parent who has an adult child with disabilities spoke of what he has learned from his daughter; he spoke in particular of how his daughter constantly reminds him of our capacity for kindness and joy. Another parent spoke of the small moments of kindness and welcome that people show to his son, saying that though we might not think anything of it and we probably forget about it after the moment passes, they do not forget, and these moments of kindness are extremely meaningful. These speeches deepened the experience of our Yom Kippur worship and caused us all to feel even more connected.

This spring, we are looking forward to a joint Art Show between Temple Jeremiah and a local Jewish organization that aids people of all ages who have disabilities. Artwork created by participants and students in this organization will be joined with artwork created by members of Temple Jeremiah, and it will be auctioned or sold. In addition to celebrating the creativity of the artists, the Art Show will provide funding for programs that teach individuals with disabilities how to use and manage spending money. Almost all of our Temple groups will be involved in some way in making the Art Show happen.

RabbiEmilySegal.jpgTemple Jeremiah is benefiting from our Social Action Initiative for 5771, expanding on the work we had done within and outside of Jewish Disability Awareness Month in previous years. We have challenged ourselves to build upon our strong foundational value of inclusion to really engage in creating a community that is intentional about including people with disabilities and making sure they feel welcomed. This affects the language we use to talk about these issues, the physical layout of our space, and our programming and educational efforts. We pray that after this year of programming, our Temple will come even closer to fulfilling the hope expressed in Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”

Rabbi Emily E. Segal is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, IL. This post is the third in a weeklong series about Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

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