by Shelley Christensen
“For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, you shall not prune your vineyard, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth of your harvest . . . And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you . . . (Leviticus 25:3–6)
Having completed six consecutive years of observing Jewish Disability Awareness Months (2009-2015), we now approach the shmita year. In ancient times, shmita meant the land was rested and debts were retired, but what might this practice mean in our time? And what are the indications for our work and mission to suffuse our Jewish culture with the spirit of inclusion throughout the year?
I have been captivated by the growing numbers of communities and organizations that participate in Jewish Disability Awareness Month. What began as a mechanism for a few Jewish communities to share resources and collaborate to raise awareness has generated a movement that advocates for person-centered authentic participation – in other words, a high-quality Jewish life determined by people who have disabilities and those who love them, with the support and partnership of Jewish organizations.
I don’t think Jewish Disability Awareness Month would have expanded so dramatically in North America, Israel, and in other Jewish communities around the world had it not been for the increasing pressure by self-advocates and family members who wanted nothing less than a quality Jewish life.
When my colleagues at the Jewish Special Education International Consortium first founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we did so with the underlying belief that it would inspire the momentum to push forward so that organizations would respond to meeting the needs of people with disabilities.
I’m not convinced that we’re there yet, but the momentum is occurring. We’ve witnessed it in the many programs funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation across the expanse of the Jewish world, as well as so many initiatives that provide leadership development, vocational, educational, recreational, and residential supports and advocacy. The Ruderman Foundation has provided the means for disability inclusion initiatives with the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movemens, and Chabad, all of which provide innovative tools and strategies to ensure that people with disabilities are valued and contributing members of their Jewish communities.
I receive numerous calls and emails from Jewish professionals who are initiating disability inclusion programs and supports, creating points of entry to participation and critically thinking how to best reach out to community members, many of whom are not affiliated with a synagogue or Jewish community center. And those organizations that have been providing services are evaluating them to adapt to more person-centered models of support.
It is fitting to mark the changes in our community that lead to constant and consistent attention to disability inclusion as we enter the shmita year by changing the name of our Facebook page from “Jewish Disability Awareness Month” to “Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion.” The new name reflects a commitment to our ongoing work, and the page will serve as an inspirational and informational resource for inclusion all year long.
The shmita year can be one of introspection and inspiration to guide us in the work of inclusion. We cannot desist from our work. We can allow the spirit of inclusion to infuse our actions as partners with God, with community and with people with disabilities and those who love them to achieve a quality Jewish life.