February is Jewish Disabilities Month. A calendar full of local events has been coordinated by Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning.
AJL has encouraged congregations to promote disability awareness with special Shabbat services, speakers, and religious and preschool programs. The agency is providing resources and speakers.
Special Shabbats have been scheduled at Beth El Congregation Feb. 21, Congregation Beth Shalom Feb. 7, New Light Congregation Feb. 21, Temple David Feb. 13, and other congregations throughout the month.
“Praying with Lior,” a movie about a young boy with Down syndrome and his bar mitzvah ceremony, and other performances throughout the month are planned to develop awareness.
Joan Charlson is a consultant with the AJL; she will be introducing a Sensitivity Awareness Program to young children in the Jewish community.
“I teach the children about openness, inclusion and acceptance,” she said.
Under her guidance and training, the staffs from AJL and Jewish Family & Children’s Service are planning to introduce Disability Dolls and specially selected picture books with curriculum to children in religious schools.
Fifteen-year-old Amada Diaz of Mt. Lebanon has Prader-Willie Syndrome. In some respects, she is like any other teenager — happy and busy.
“She really wants to be part of the Jewish community,” said her mom, Stacey Diaz.
The family celebrates Shabbat and Jewish holidays together. Her brother, Adam, was a bar mitzvah and Amanda and her brother Jason, 16, became b’nai mitzvah together.
She really wanted to go to J-site. “She’s a pretty spiritual kid. She appreciates Jewish ideals,” said her mom.
But keeping up with high school level Hebrew can be difficult and that’s where the AJL’s special needs department makes all the difference. A consultant works with her, sitting alongside her in class and keeping her with the group, making sure that Amanda can keep up with the class and stay in J-Site next year.
In return, despite her differences, Amanda can feel completely embraced by the Jewish community. That is the support that she surely needs. “I go to J-Site on Monday nights and have a really good time there,” she said.
“My favorite thing about being Jewish is spending time with my family and close friends. My favorite holiday is Chanuka because I get to spend time with my family by lighting the menora.”
The special needs advisory committee is not just about helping children like Amanda. It is also about the greater Jewish community.
“Our entire community has become more sensitive and comfortable by including people with special needs,” said Terry Feinberg Steinberg, director of Special Education Services Agency for Jewish Learning. “Each child has a role to play in our Jewish future as part of K’lal Yisroel.”
(Dev Meyers can be reached at email@example.com.)