Jewish community focuses on disability awareness in February
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Disability InclusionEvents and actions throughout community

Jewish community focuses on disability awareness in February

JRS' Nancy Gale among those who traveled to the nation's capital.

From left: Chelsea Karp, Nancy Gale, Aaron Gorodzinsky,  Lisa Lenhart, Congressman Mike Doyle and Rebecca Axelrod-Cooper. Photo courtesy of Nancy Gale
From left: Chelsea Karp, Nancy Gale, Aaron Gorodzinsky, Lisa Lenhart, Congressman Mike Doyle and Rebecca Axelrod-Cooper. Photo courtesy of Nancy Gale

Throughout February, local residents and organizations are calling attention to disability inclusion as part of Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month. Last week, Nancy Gale, executive director of Jewish Residential Services, traveled to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4 for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day.

Gale and fellow participants heard from authorities on disability inclusion and met with politicians to discuss continued efforts.

“It was just a really terrific day,” said Gale. “I learned a lot, and we had a chance to see how this works — where bills are proposed and constituents go and voice their opinions about them.”

The day represented a number of milestones. Aside from marking the 10th annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, participants commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 45th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, which is supported by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Jewish Disability Network, draws delegations from all over the country, including from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Jewish Federation’s Community Campaign supports advocacy on issues important to the Jewish community on both the state and national level, and a critical part of those efforts is advocating for legislation and funding for people with disabilities,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Marketing Director Adam Hertzman, adding that evidence of Federation’s work can be seen through “inclusion in areas such as technology access, education and job training.”

Lisa Lenhart and Nancy Gale. Photo courtesy of Nancy Gale

At Temple Sinai, disability inclusion is also a top priority, and paramount to the congregation’s identity, explained Judy Rulin Mahan, Temple Sinai’s member engagement and operations director.

In 2015, Temple Sinai formed a disability task force to facilitate a more inclusive environment. Since then, the congregation has made several changes in order to create a more welcoming space, such as magnifying glasses and fidget toys for services, large-print prayer books and a quiet room and sensory-friendly spaces for those seeking less stimulating environments in the building.

“Disability inclusion is important to Temple Sinai because it’s important for individuals to feel included no matter what,” said Rulin Mahan. “Some people’s disabilities show, some people’s disabilities don’t, but everybody’s a part of our community here, and everybody — everybody — is included.”

On Feb. 21, disability inclusion will be addressed from the pulpit.

During a similarly designated Shabbat service last year, Mara Kaplan, co-chair of the disability inclusion task force, referenced her son Samuel, a child with “severe disabilities,” and talked about the “oppressive” comments she had received while grocery shopping with him. Kaplan challenged listeners to question their personal judgments and explore new relationships.

“Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Get to know a person who makes you feel a little uncomfortable because they are different than you and make a genuine attempt to get to know them. See how many things you can find that you have in common,” said Kaplan. “Get to know someone that has a disability, a mental health diagnosis, or is raising a child who learns and understands the world differently from you. Use these strategies of active listening, challenge your prejudices, asking questions, spending time in others shoes and sharing yourself with others. What you will learn is that our congregation, our community, is greater because it is made up of many parts.”

Kaplan will speak again on Feb. 21, said Rulin Mahan, noting that by sharing stories, congregants “don’t feel that they’re alone.”

Narrative strategies will also be employed on Feb. 25 when JRS hosts “Breaking Down the Walls: A Storytelling Event” at the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse.

The “Moth”-style event will feature visual and spoken storytelling by Clubhouse members.

“It’s really a chance for members at the Clubhouse to tell their story, and for the community to come and understand what life is like for them and how things look from their eyes,” Gale explained.

Additional events throughout the month include a Temple Sinai brotherhood brunch and lecture on Feb. 23 with Joyce A. Bender, founder and CEO of Bender Consulting Services, Inc., a national leader in advancing employment of people with disabilities, and a Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Shabbat dinner at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Feb. 28. Beth El Congregation of the South Hills is similarly hosting an inclusion Shabbat and welcoming Lisa Story, founder and Executive Director of Hope Grows, an organization whose mission is “to inspire hope through nature while empowering caregivers to seek wellness of mind, body, and spirit.” An online posting from the congregation promises the Feb. 22 event will be a “a thought-provoking morning.”

Whether by participating in local events or advocating in the nation’s capital, there are multiple ways to increase disability inclusion, explained Gale.

“There is a lot that the community can do to help ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights as everyone else. For example, check out our website, which has the information about the specific legislation and look at what your elected officials are doing to promote and protect these rights,” she said. “It’s really important to ensure that just because someone has a disability that they should not be prevented from exercising their rights and from participating in the community — all of those things that the rest of us kind of take for granted.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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