I just returned from the first Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, held December 1st – 5th at the Pearlstone Center outside of Baltimore, MD. It was an incredible gathering of 25 Jewish disability and communal leaders—leaders from the disability field, individuals with disabilities and family members. We spent more than 12 hours each day learning about the importance of self-determination, individualized person-centered planning and the rights of individuals to determine where they live, with whom they live and how they spend their time. We as Jews understand, and experience through our history, what happens when individuals are dehumanized and their rights are taken away. That still happens for many people with disabilities.
The facts: 35,000 people in our country remain in large state institutions, 90,000 people are in intermediate care facilities, 50,000 are in segregated communities and 25,000 are in nursing homes.
One of the institute participants was a young Persian woman who fled to the United States from Iran to preserve her religious freedom as a Jew. Once in the United States, she developed a disabling condition and was institutionalized in a nursing home. It took two years of advocacy to gain her freedom, and she now fully participates in the community, attending synagogue, Jewish educational programs and college—all while working to advocate on other people’s behalf—with the support and assistance of staff, family and friends.
In our state, the Medicaid and state policies give lip service to inclusion but financially favor more restrictive settings. It will take a lot of hard work and collaboration to begin to switch the paradigm.
We were excited when Rabbi Lynne Landsberg from the Religious Action Center announced a new initiative: Hineinu (“We are here”)—the first-ever formal combination of human rights and disability professionals from each of the four religious streams (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist) sharing resources, support and direction in order to increase disability inclusion in our synagogues for people of all abilities.
We left the conference excited by our new colleagues, the call to action and the work ahead. It was no coincidence that the conference took place during Chanukah, when we as Jews fought for our religious freedom. As we flew home we learned that Nelson Mandela—one of the world’s great freedom fighters— had died. We have a lot to learn from him, from each other, from other Jewish communities and from people with different abilities and their families.