Since the late 1980s the Jewish conversation — and Jewish funding — has orbited around the goal of Jewish continuity. Whether the cause is Jewish peoplehood, intermarriage, education, or even Israel, ensuring our Jewish continuity inevitably grounds the discussion.
But one issue critical to continuity has been missing from the conversation for far too long: supporting our disabled and special needs populations.
With 14 percent of children in North America having special needs and an even larger percentage of people — young and old — living with a disability, hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and around the world must forego Jewish experiences in order to participate in secular programs — schools, camps, vocational services, and more — that meet basic developmental needs.
Even in major Jewish markets, families with disabled children struggle to engage in Jewish life. This summer, international media reported on the Samuels family of New York, who were forced to choose between providing a Jewish education for their daughter Caily, who was born with Down syndrome, and a secular program that would accommodate her special circumstances.
For a people who value fairness, inclusivity, and justice, it’s unacceptable that so many of our own are turned away in this manner. We need to tackle Jewish continuity head-on by ensuring that Jews with special needs have a place to live, learn, and work within our communities.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am issuing a challenge to the Jewish community to embrace special needs as a core part of the continuity conversation and to take active roles in supporting the needs of the disabled. We cannot afford to ignore the issue of special needs because it is expensive or complex. It is critical to the future of our community and deserves to be prioritized.
If Jews with disabilities are turned away from Jewish schools, community centers, and synagogues, that means the organized Jewish community is turning away an integral part of our community — our children, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
But by moving the bar in this one area, and supporting programs that enable Jews with disabilities to participate in all facets of Jewish life, we can create opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people living with special needs to lead meaningful and vibrant Jewish lives. I can’t think of a more meaningful way to support continuity.