By Jay Ruderman and Avital Sandler-Loeff/

February in the U.S. marks Black History Month and Valentine’s Day. For the global Jewish community and Israel, this month also marks Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a time to celebrate and double down on efforts to foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in our communities.

This kind of recognition wasn’t always a given, but as people with disabilities are the largest minority worldwide—representing 20 percent of the global population, including more than 1 million in Israel—it became incumbent on us to build a more open and welcoming Jewish and Israeli communities for people with disabilities. Living with a disability affects every aspect of life, not only the person with a disability but also their families, friends, and the society they live in.

Are we doing enough for people with disabilities, who want more control over their own lives and desire greater engagement as members of society? After all, inclusion, and independent living, aligns directly with our Jewish values. In order to develop a strong and sustainable people, it is essential that community-based programs have an inclusive mindset. In Israel, we still have a way to go.

That is why Israel Unlimited—a partnership between the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Israel, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and the Israeli government—collaborated this week with The Ted Arison Family Foundation and the U.S. Embassy in Israel to bring a renowned delegation from The National Leadership Consortium at the University of Delaware to address the most pressing issues in the field of disabilities. The seminar addressed by the delegation was organized to foster cooperation between the U.S., Israel, and Jewish communities worldwide to increase accessibility and the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of our societies.

The confab is providing top-level training to Israel’s senior professionals in the government, leaders with disabilities, local municipalities, and disabilities NGOs making the decisions shaping the future of individuals living with disabilities. They are spending an intensive week with the National Leadership Consortium and creating a network to lead change in the disability space and confront many challenges.

And what are those challenges?

First and foremost, living independently. Today, there are 10,000 Israeli with disabilities living in institutions and if you’re an Israeli with disabilities, you have few choices for independent living. You live with your parents for your lifetime with no adequate support or in a segregated setting, typically in severe poverty. Sadly, in Israel, there is also no training offered for finding an apartment, learning how to cook, making friends, paying bills, and navigating the personal aid system. All of these basic skills help someone with a disability to gain independence and move to the wider community.

In America, there are many services available for people with disabilities that are provided through the government. Tailored for individual needs identified in advance, appropriate services are then provided. Taking a page from this model, we have developed a strategy called “Supported Housing” that ensures these critical services and training, soon expanding to 37 municipalities around Israel.

A second challenge is employment for Israelis with disabilities. Israel, as it happens, is taking a lead and can serve as an example to other nations where people with disabilities still face barriers to work. They have a strong desire to work, but are lacking in the knowledge, connections, and access for a career.

JDC is currently collaborating with Israeli employers who already include people with disabilities in their workforce to encourage their peers in the business community to join them. This peer-to-peer model ensures potential employers hear from their colleagues about the manifold benefits that businesses reap when hiring people with disabilities.

The third and most critical challenge is changing negative attitudes towards Israelis with disabilities. While over the last decade there have been tremendous changes when it comes to these attitudes, we still have much to do.

For example, over half of the landlords in Israel—nearly 53 percent—do not want to rent their apartments to people with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. Many Israelis still utilize parking spots reserved for people with disabilities. And there are local communities who protest providing services to people with disabilities because local residents are concerned their property values will decrease with the presence of people with disabilities in their town—a complete falsity.

To battle these perceptions, we’ve developed the “Friending” program, which creates social connections between people with and without disabilities who, after meeting and learning about one another, stand up in the face of intolerance. We are also training rabbis, sheiks, and imams to become change agents and deployed the “Friending” method in 14 leading Israeli universities, colleges, and major corporations. Using sports and lifestyle activities as a hook, we are also creating a countrywide movement of Israeli “Friends” programs that create sports and recreational opportunities with groups of people with and without disabilities.

While the challenges highlighted above are highly complex, they also present unique opportunities for positive change. From schools in Israel to synagogues in Kiev, and even American Jewish Community Centers, people with disabilities need to be part of all strategic planning moving forward.

It is our responsibility as Jews and Israelis to solve these issues, ensuring people with disabilities live with a high quality of life and can actively participate in our communities and nation. Now is the time to make a difference.

Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation and Avital Sandler-Loeff is the executive director of JDC’s Israel Unlimited partnership.

Editor’s note: The 2016 Inclusion Special Section, published during Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, is made possible by the support of Jewish National Fund.


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