The first-ever survey of the American Jewish community on the issue of disabilities has found that the disabled are dramatically underrepresented among those engaged in Jewish life. The results indicated that most people with disabilities opt out of Jewish life, after feeling alienated by Jewish organizations like day schools, camps and synagogues, said Jennifer Mizrahi, CEO and president of RespectAbilityUSA, a new organization focused on employment for the disabled. The study was commissioned by RespectAbilityUSA and JerusalemU.org, an online Jewish education resource.
Conducted online, the survey polled 2,607 American Jews who subscribe to Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post, are on the email list of the disability blog The New Normal or are connected to organizations serving Jews with disabilities, including Gateways in Boston and Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program. Eight percent of the respondents described themselves as having a disability of some sort, while just over 18 percent of the total population are disabled, according to the United States census.
Even among the targeted population of the poll, the results revealed that Jews with disabilities, and their family members, are strikingly underrepresented in the Jewishly-engaged population and that younger American Jews feel even more alienated than their elders.
“That there are so few people with disabilities involved with the Jewish community is a huge piece of information for us,” Mizrahi told Haaretz. According to the census, 51 percent of Americans have a family member or close friend with a disability. But less than half that percentage in the new survey said they did. “Not only are we losing the Jews with disabilities to involvement, once you tell a Jewish child they can’t go to day school because they have a disability, you lose their entire family,” she said.
Others involved with the Jewish disability community agree. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on raising awareness about disability and integrating Jews with disabilities into mainstream Jewish organizations, said, “our community is exclusionary. That’s true for the disabled and also their family members, wherever people gather in the community: synagogues and community centers and schools.”
Yet just about everyone has a relationship with someone with a physical, developmental or learning disability. “When I speak to large groups and ask who has a child, sibling, relative or neighbor with some form of a disability, every hand in the room goes up,” said Ruderman. “Everyone has some connection to disability.”
The American Jewish community’s focus needs to change, said Ruderman. It “is very concerned about sustainability, about keeping our kids Jewish. In the process we have gone after who we considered most promising: well educated, upwardly mobile young Jews who are becoming disconnected. We don’t do a good job of trying to include people who want to become part of the community, and people with disabilities and their families turn away. When you include family members it’s a significant number of people,” he said. “It represents about 20 percent of our population. It doesn’t make sense to turn away 20 percent of your population,” said Ruderman, who is based in Rehovot and whose Massachusetts-based foundation does work in Israel, the Boston area and across the U.S.
Mizrahi, herself the mother of a child with a disability (which she prefers not to publicly discuss), was motivated to advocate for the community after having her child dismissed from a Washington D.C.-area Jewish day school, which maintained it was unable to meet the child’s needs. She established RespectAbilityUSA in July after leaving The Israel Project, an educational and advocacy non-profit she founded in Washington in 2002 and spent a decade building.
Whenever she tried to arrange accommodations for her child in a mainstream setting, she was frustrated, disappointed and alienated, Mizrahi said. “To see my child be rejected from the community that I was giving all of my time and energy to was incredibly painful,” she said. “The Jewish community was not there for my child. It was not there for me.”
There has been a small blossoming of efforts to address the issue of Jews with disabilities, particularly in the past year or two. Recent efforts include intensified attention and funding by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the birth of The New Normal blog at The New York Jewish Week and the creation of a special education Jewish day school in Manhattan.
The Shefa School, which plans to open its doors in September 2014 with two classes of 2nd to 4th graders (an age at which learning disabilities are often first identified,) is focusing on children with language-based learning disabilities, said founder Ilana Ruskay-Kidd. It is in the process of securing space, which she hopes will be on the Upper West Side. Ruskay-Kidd was moved to open Shefa after seeing how many Jewishly-engaged families are forced to pull their children out of day schools to send them to secular special ed schools instead. “Families feel shut out” of the Jewish community, she said. “We want to offer them an option where they don’t have to give up their Jewish community and calendar while still getting a high quality and specialized environment targeted at meeting the special education needs of their children,” she told Haaretz.
Mizrahi applauded the fact that the Jewish community is expanding its offerings, but criticized a communal response that is offering a separate special ed school rather than including children needing significant supports into mainstream Jewish day school classrooms.
“At the end of the day it’s a segregated school,” Mizrahi said. “Studies show that kids in disabled-only schools don’t do as well in the long term as kids in integrated schools. I would rather there be an inclusion program at a day school in New York where, for part of the day, they could get extra learning and part of the day be integrated with typical kids, so they have a better chance to succeed later.”
In response, Ruskay-Kidd said that she wants to expand every kind of option, including enhanced supports offered to kids in regular day schools. “We can continue to be angry or we can say ‘we’re watching families leaving in big numbers to go to secular special needs schools. It’s time for us to be an embracing, inclusive place and say we’re going to make a place for you,’" she said.
Mizrahi conceded that having a school like Shefa is preferable to the current paucity of educational settings for Jewish children with learning disabilities. “The fact is that those day schools wouldn’t take the kids. God bless Ilana Ruskay-Kidd that she’s doing it, because otherwise these kids don’t get to have the Jewish identity that they want to have.”
At the end of the day, Mizrahi said, the “inclusion of Jews with disabilities is core to Jewish survival.” And right now, “that’s the missing piece.”