VWaksberg, David
VWaksberg, David

Its imperative we fully open our arms to Jews with special needs

“Shvitat ra’av!” declared the voice on the telephone. “I’m going on a hunger strike.”

It was 1987. Elazar Yuzefovich, a Jewish refusenik in Moscow, was fed up. After a decade of Soviet refusal, Yuzefovich was fighting for freedom. But what drove him was his desire to provide a Jewish life for his family and to provide his children with meaningful Jewish education.

“Why?” I asked (for this hunger strike offered slim hope of success). He explained that while he didn’t think he would gain exit for his family, he hoped to call attention to the problem of Soviet Jewish refuseniks and, thus, help others.

He quoted a passage from Talmud: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” — all Israel is responsible one to another.

Those words pierced me. Elazar was talking about his responsibility to his fellow refuseniks, but also hinting at our responsibility to them and to him.

 

David Waksberg

I was reminded of Yuzefovich when I met Ron, whose son has Angelman’s Syndrome, and Gail, parent of an autistic child. As Yuzefovich did, they too hope to provide their children with a Jewish life and with the opportunity for a Jewish education. Like Yuzefovich, they, and other Jewish parents of children with special learning needs, have been frustrated in achieving that goal.

 

Unlike Yuzefovich, they don’t live under an anti-Semitic, totalitarian regime. They live right here among us in Northern California.

American Jews raised their voices on behalf of the right of their fellow Jews in the USSR to be free to live a Jewish life.

Today, one in six Jews still struggles for access to Jewish learning. They don’t live in a foreign land; they live among us. They are the 15 percent of us who have disabilities. Despite recent progress, and islands of inclusion, many are still blocked from Jewish learning because Jewish institutions lack the capacity to effectively include them.

We all know Jews with disabilities. Moses had a speech impediment and feared his disability precluded his leadership. But God had other ideas and recruited someone to assist Moses: Aaron, the Jewish people’s first inclusion specialist. Why? Speech impediment notwithstanding, Moses had something unique and powerful to offer. Not everyone can be a Moses, but what future contributions do we lose when any of us feels excluded from Jewish life and learning?

Many families have felt excluded because, despite good intentions, we have failed to make the accommodations needed to include them. Barriers to inclusion come in many forms, among them physical, communications and attitudinal barriers.

In Leviticus, we are commanded not to place a stumbling block before the blind. Sometimes we need to raise our own awareness to see those stumbling blocks so we can remove them.

Stairs to a bimah that cannot be traversed by a wheelchair? A lack of prayer books in large print or Braille?

Attitudes that dismiss people with special needs as incapable of participating meaningfully in Jewish life and learning? These are among the many stumbling blocks that impede access for Jews with special needs.

North Peninsula leaders concluded that good intentions were not enough — they seek a truly inclusive community. Thanks to funding from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and other donors, the Bureau of Jewish Education is leading an initiative enabling North Peninsula Jewish institutions to be inclusive to all Jewish children and their families.

Who’s involved? Everyone! Every congregation and preschool in the North Peninsula area, the Peninsula JCC and the Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, along with the BJE, the federation and S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

In contrast to the Soviet Jewry movement, we don’t need to write to our senator or hold a solidarity vigil outside a foreign consulate. We have met the enemy and he is us. We need, simply, to open our doors, our minds and our hearts.

To learn how, come to “Opening the Door: A Special Needs Day of Learning” on Sunday, Nov. 1 at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City (for more information, visit www.bjesf.org and click on events). It’s a great opportunity for educators, clergy, volunteers and parents to learn how to make our community more welcoming.

When discussing inclusion strategies, my wife, Ellen, talks about curb cuts. Curb cuts — those ramps at street corners cut out of the curbs — were created to accommodate people in wheelchairs. As it turned out, curb cuts made life easier for all kinds of people — parents pushing strollers and toddlers on tricycles, for example.

Similarly, when we make our community more welcoming to anyone, we discover ways of including all sorts of folks who have felt left out.

After weeks of fasting, Yuzefovich obtained exit visas to Israel for his family. He couldn’t succeed alone — here in San Francisco, we publicized his struggle and, together, gained the right for the Yuzefovich family to live a Jewish life.

The right to live a Jewish life: Every Jew has that right. We worked with our brothers and sisters in Russia to secure it for them; so must we dedicate ourselves to secure it for those in our midst. As Yuzefovich reminded me two decades ago — kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, we are all responsible for each other.

David Waksberg is the executive director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

David Waksberg
David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.