I Feel Inspired to Change the World
This past Tuesday, I attended the ADVANCE Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference sponsored by the Ruderman Foundation. It is the second year that Jewish funders have convened to address the challenges in the special needs world. A few years ago there were no such forums on special needs but now we have the largest Jewish foundations and benefactors meeting – it’s a revolution in the special needs world. The special needs world is changing and I feel inspired to change the world in my own way.
At the conference we heard inspiring speakers like Tim Shriver, CEO, of the Special Olympics, who explained how so much can be achieved. We also listened through a sign language interpreter to two amazing deaf women share their stories of overcoming adversity. Their stories were mind-blowing but they also shared the challenge of being disabled and not being allowed to fully participate in the Jewish community because of their disability.
After my family’s personal struggle with our daughter and the Manhattan Jewish community, I share the pain and I know the reality. Too often our community sends a subtle message, “If you are not designer perfect, please don’t apply.” One of the presentations focused on the tragedies and challenges in third world countries faced by disabled people, including terrible living conditions and cases where disabled kids were treated like animals and left tethered to posts and to sleep in sheds. Shocking, scary and outrageous!
But then I think of Caily’s world in Manhattan in 2011. She lives in one of the wealthiest and most educated cities in the world with one of the most advanced human rights laws and a NYC school system that is leading the way in terms of inclusion of people with disabilities and special needs. Yet in my own community, my own back yard my daughter is DENIED participation in our schools. It’s a sad comparison but, to me, the abuse of her rights and dignity in our community relative to its resources in 2011 is just as shocking as what we see in those third world communities.
I still recall the words of a Jewish Day School Principal, “I am sorry, Mrs. Samuels, we do not have the resources to have your daughter at our school.” Resources? Let’s clarify. We are talking about a Jewish day school in one of the top five wealthiest zip codes in the US, with 12 kids in a class and three teachers. Caily would have come to school with a master’s degree educated special education teacher as a shadow paid for by the city. I guess the resources that they do not have are open heartedness and open mindedness.
For this reason, I want to use my voice to take a stand. I want Caily to be the Rosa Parks of the Manhattan Jewish community and the rallying cry to be, “Every Jewish child has the right to a Jewish education and inclusion at all levels of community.”
The concluding message at the conference was to remind us that we are all made in the image of G-d and we all have to take responsibility for every Jew. The challenge is for each of us to take a stand — to demand change, support change with time and money, educate others, and open our hearts, schools and shuls. I hope I can count on each of you to be there to support change. Join facebook.com/cailysworld for more information. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to join our grass roots community.
Originally published: December 8, 2011