By Sierra Weiss
In 2009, Shelly Christensen, a leader in the field of disability inclusion, co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month (as it was known at the time) with the Jewish Special Education Consortium. Since then, February has been designated as a month to recognize and uplift inclusion and its message, making this the “bar/bat mitzvah” year of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM). The JCC Movement has long acknowledged and upheld the value of inclusion, and its Jewish Community Centers and Jewish Community Camps (JCCs)—as the town squares of Jewish life—have an obligation to ensure that all who enter are welcomed and supported as their authentic selves. This year, JCC Association of North America is the destination for inclusion programs and events throughout the month.
To celebrate, we are hosting this month’s calendar of all JDAAIM programming and events that highlight the awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the Jewish community. In addition, we will launch the first in a series of eight webinars developed for JCC professionals but open to anyone seeking to increase their knowledge of disability inclusion. Each webinar will correspond to one of JCC Association’s “Eight Guiding Principles on Inclusion,” designed to ground the JCC Movement’s inclusion work and develop a shared approach to this critically important endeavor. Rooted in Jewish values, these eight principles will form the foundation for the JCC Movement’s work going forward.
On February 8 at 1 p.m. ET, we will kick off the series with a webinar focused on the principle of B’tselem Elohim (Inherent Worth) that will feature Sharoni Sibony, a Toronto-based community organizer, artist, and adult educator across multiple disciplines, who will speak to her work in illustrating the guiding principles, followed by Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, storyteller, digital communications consultant, and author of the recently published “Disability Demystified,” in conversation with Aaron Kaufman, senior legislative associate for Jewish Federations of North America and a disability rights activist. Register for this event now.
Building on JCC Association’s commitment to inclusion, each webinar will also highlight JCCs across the continent and their outstanding work in the realm of disability inclusion, which serves as a model for us all. They will follow a similar format as the first webinar, delving into the principles by offering conversations with leading experts and JCC professionals, as well as practical strategies and models to implement throughout the JCC world. The underlying theme of each webinar will address inclusion as a mindset and an approach at the heart of everything we do—an effort that began in earnest during the pandemic and deepened throughout 2021.
Physically separated from one another, JCC Association staff members were forced to reimagine our working structures and create opportunities for cross-departmental collaboration. One such alliance, the Inclusion Working Group, comprises a diverse collection of professionals from JCC Association who seek to address inclusion in an intentional and intersectional way. Although the group has a professional focus on the inclusion of people with disabilities, JCC Association emphasizes the value of Inclusion with a capital “I”—that is, inclusion in all forms. As JCC Association’s work around inclusion continued to evolve during the pandemic, the organization hired two inclusion professionals—Liv Mendelsohn and me.
Long active in the Jewish community, I was privileged to attend a Jewish sleep-away camp that had an incredible inclusion program, and I spent many summers interacting and developing friendships with campers who had disabilities. Over time, I came to realize that although many of my year-round communities preached values of inclusion, I experienced those values only at camp. In the spring of 2021, I joined JCC Association as the inaugural access and inclusion specialist after more than a decade of professional experience in the field of disability advocacy. In the many years since my passion for inclusion and accessibility was sparked, I have seen great progress, particularly in the Jewish community, and yet, much work remains to be done.
Like many, I do not have a direct, personal relationship to disability; however, my passion for inclusion is fueled by my commitment to making all Jewish communities accessible to all who wish to participate. I am fortunate to contribute to the work of this organization, which honors and advances disability inclusion and strives to ensure that throughout the movement all JCC professionals see themselves as inclusion professionals in some way and all who enter our spaces—whether in person or online—are engaged in promoting and upholding inclusion as a recognized and respected value within the community.
Now the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Caregiving Excellence, Liv joined JCC Association as a consultant in 2021 after several years as the director of accessibility and inclusion at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto, Ontario, and the inclusion director at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Liv brings lived experience of disability and as the parent of kids with disabilities. She is passionate about JCCs realizing their potential as places of belonging for all.
As we strengthen our commitment to inclusion and work to achieve these goals, the ongoing reality of pandemic life gives us a unique opportunity to make JDAAIM programs and events broadly available—not only in February but during every month throughout the year. As you peruse the calendar for this month and beyond, find a point of engagement—or several—and attend those events and programs that spark your interest to learn more or ignite your passion to make a difference in this vitally important work in the Jewish community and beyond.
Sierra Weiss is JCC Association of North America‘s access and inclusion specialist for the JCC community.