The Jewish Community Needs to Do More for Our Disabled Kids – Kveller
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The Jewish Community Needs to Do More for Our Disabled Kids

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Last year I wrote a piece asking where my fellow single Jewish parents are. (Still haven’t found them yet, btw.) Now, a little more than a year later, I have another question: Where are the other disabled Jewish little kids and their families?

Our synagogue has been wonderful with inclusion (you can read more about that here), but I almost never see any other disabled young children near my son’s age. In the hopes of connecting with other such families, we signed up for a multi-day overnight family camp for disabled children and their families at a popular Jewish camp this summer, but it was canceled in February due to supposed lack of interest.

With all of the things my almost-7-year-old son and I are involved in, aside from his baseball team (which is not Jewish), I have yet to find other Jewish disabled peers his own age.

Or maybe I have.

Many people who attend services with us probably don’t even realize my child is disabled. He is not stereotypically “visibly” disabled, and because he’s not singing a large part of the song by himself, no one notices his speech is a little different from that of most children his age. When my son helps lead his song on Friday nights, most of the congregants don’t know that they’re watching the result of years of speech therapy multiple times a week that continues today.

Maybe there are other disabled and/or neurodivergent young kids in our synagogue and I just don’t know, because it’s not like any of us go around disclosing our children’s histories and diagnoses to everyone we see. My son’s religious school is inclusive, and kids of all abilities attend. I shouldn’t make assumptions.

But it would be nice to meet other parents who I know get it. Sometimes, it’s really lonely being around parents of (seemingly) abled kids. Our experiences of parenting are often very different. There is a lot that’s taken for granted, from the ease of picking a preschool to participating in activities without thoroughly “vetting” them to see if they welcome your child. There is a letting down of barriers when I’m with other parents of disabled kids, which I’ve found in places outside of the Jewish community, like his baseball league. Finding it among fellow Jews would be all the more welcome.

My son has also experienced this comfort around other disabled and neurodivergent kids. I’m not going to share specific examples because it’s not for others to know, but it’s something that is even visible in the way he moves in those spaces. That’s why this has been so important to me.

Finding where we belong in our local Jewish community has not been easy. The ableism I’ve seen among multiple synagogue preschools across branches of Judaism has shocked me. Our JCC camp experience was such a disaster that he never even attended – I pulled him before it could even start. All of this has given me a healthy cynicism about Jewish organizations and spaces, to be honest.

By the time my son was 2.5 years old, I didn’t think there was a place for us in our Jewish community at all. Thanks to one early childhood center director who wanted to meet him, we eventually found a Jewish preschool. She was a staunch ally and helped me gain my footing as a parent in the community. She stood up for my son and believed in his ability to thrive. She showed me what a good ally is, and how my son and I should feel in a community. That experience enabled me to eventually find our way to where we are now. But I also know that not every parent here will find that. And finding one’s place in the Jewish community shouldn’t have to be so hard.

So maybe my real question is this: What are we doing to make our Jewish spaces as welcoming as possible for those who are disabled and/or neurodivergent, especially children? What are the barriers for these families and kids, and what we can do as a community to truly be an inviting space, and not just give lip service to the concepts of disability justice and inclusion, as is so often the case with things like JDAIM (Jewish Disability Awareness/Acceptance and Inclusion Month), if I may be so blunt.

What are synagogues doing to make very clear — publicly, explicitly clear — that disabled children and their loved ones are welcome at events and services?

Are synagogue preschools and Jewish day schools embracing disabled and/or neurodivergent children and their caregivers?

Are JCCs providing plenty of accessible programming year-round, and not just during JDAIM?

Are Jewish camps putting as much time, effort and publicity into their disability inclusion programming and family camp opportunities as they are all of their other programs?

If you’re going to multiple therapies a week, getting evaluations, paying for orthotics, AAC devices, hearing aids, mobility aids or other necessary materials, it adds up, even with health insurance. Are synagogues, JCCs and Jewish camps recognizing the significant costs incurred by families, and providing additional aid to them when possible?

Are disabled individuals on staff, in leadership positions or on the board of trustees, and more importantly, are their voices amplified?

Do these institutions see all of this as an integral part of their institutional fabric?

These are questions that have kept me up these last few years. If you can’t tell, I haven’t slept much.

Disabled Jews exist. Disabled Jewish children exist. If there’s no representation or only minimal representation in our Jewish spaces and communities, we need to take a hard look at why.

It’s often said that kids may not always listen to what you say, but they’ll always notice what you do. Our children are watching us. My child watches everything; he notices everything. He knows when he is enthusiastically embraced and when he is merely tolerated. He knows when he’s being humored and when he’s actually being empowered.

What kind of community do we want to be?

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