About Beth Steinberg

I co-founded and run, Shutaf, inclusion programs for children and teens with special needs. I'm also a writer and internet content developer with a team called The Honey. I direct local community theater with a group called Theater in the Rough, specializing in experiential productions performed out of doors.

יום האישה הבינלאומי בכנסת – 3 למרץ 2014

Beth Steinberg, Shutaf co-founder, speaks at the Knesset Aliyah Committee in honor of International Women’s Day

Knesset Day!

 

תודה לכולכם – חברי כנסת מכובדים, ועדת העלייה, עולים חדשים וותיקים, אורחים. טוב להיות כאן היום, לכבוד יום האישה הבינלאומי.

לפני קרוב לשישים ושש שנים, אבא שלי הפליג בספינת הSS Marine Carp. מה היתה המטרה שלו? להגיע ארצה ולעזור למדינה החדשה. הוא לא הצליח – זה סיפור אחר – אבל ב2006 כשעליתי ארצה עם בן זוגי ושלושת הבנים שלנו, סוף סוף כל המשפחה המורחבת שלי הייתה במקום אחד – בארץ ישראל. אבי ז״לֹ ואמי בירושלים, אחי הגדול ומשפחתו בכוכב יאיר, אחותי הגדולה בראש העין, אחותי הקטנה בירושלים – במרחק הליכה של כמה דקות מביתי.

הייתי בת 44 ובעלי בן 45. עלינו עם ילדים גדולים. לא ידענו מה מחכה לנו ואיך החיים שלנו ייראו. ידענו שתמיד אפשר לחזור לברוקלין. (לא לדאוג – אנחנו לא חוזרים)

היום, כשאני מסתכלת אחורה על שבע שנים של עשייה, אני אומרת Wow. יחד עם השותפה שלי, מרים אברהם, ייסדנו את ״שותף״ תוכנית שילוב לילדים ובני נוער עם צרכים מיוחדים. תוכנית איכותית שעונה על הצרכים של כ150 ילדים – ילדים עם צרכים מיוחדים יחד עם ילדים רגילים לגמרי, פה בירושלים. ב״שותף״ בונים עתיד טוב יותר, עתיד משלב יותר, עתיד שבו כולם עובדים, לומדים וחיים – ביחד – בלי להתייחס לתוויות או רמת תפקוד. חלום טוב.

אז הסתכלתי למשהו אחר שגם חשוב לי – תאטרון.

ב2010 הקמתי, יחד עם אומני תאטרון, את ״תיאטרון בתזוזה״.  ״תיאטרון בתזוזה״ מביא לקהל הירושלמי חוויות תאטרון איכותיות, שוות-לכל-כיס, מיידיות ומרתקות. ההופעות מוצגות במקומות יוצאי דופן ובלתי צפויים – בפארקים ובמקומות ציבוריים אשר נגישים לכולם. בקיץ 2013, יותר מאלפיים ומאתיים איש הגיעו לגן בלומפילד בירושלים ליהנות מהצגה באנגלית –  ריצ׳רד ה3, המחזה השייקספירי המוצג ביותר בעולם.

נשמע טוב? נשמע מעולה. אבל יש עוד מלאכה חברתית בארץ ובמיוחד בירושלים. למדתי כאמא של ילד מיוחד שחייבים לעבוד במשותף כדי לבנות חברה תומכת, חברה שחושבת על כל אזרח, על הזכות של כולם להצליח ביחד.

מקוה שנשב שוב בעוד כמה שנים ואעדכן אתכם לגבי ההתפתחויות ב״שותף״ וב״תאטרון תזוזה״, או אולי לגבי משהו לגמרי אחר!

The Beauty of Difference

IMG_4186There she sat, her sister beside her, each dressed in pink – head to toe – with a dusting of powdered sugar on her adorable button nose, a sufganiya, jelly donut, in her little hand. She sat, in that particular way that little kids with Down syndrome sit, with her legs splayed, her posture just a bit off, her head cocked somewhat myopically as she peered through her round, pink eyeglasses. The picture of little girl cuteness with a little something special. I kvelled. I admired. I felt bereft.

I thought of Akiva, not at the Shutaf Chanukah party with me. It would have been hard to bring him – I was busy chatting up parents. Managing Akiva in an unfamiliar setting would have been challenging to say the least. Given that he doesn’t come to Shutaf’s weekly program during the year, the staff on hand, while wonderful, does’t necessarily know how to assist him, and there were many other kids who also needed attention at what was a busy and lively event.

IMG_4171He might have ended up sitting to the side, lost in thought, perhaps a finger or a few fingers in his month, slightly put off by the crowd and by his innate inability to enter the fray – really ever. He also might have wandered around, shaking people’s hands and attempting social interaction which for Akiva involves just a bit more touching than most are comfortable with – it’s one thing if you know him, it’s, it’s another if you don’t know him. This despite his winning smile and gentle nature. He’s just not so cute to the rest of the world anymore.

Definitions of cuteness and beauty, are cultural and local but certain themes repeat themselves, especially in today’s global environment where the internet and youtube determine a person’s celebrity based on their looks, their physical shape, and their popularity. People with disabilities, especially those whose appearance is altered because of genetics and problems related to their underlying condition, are not seen as symbols of loveliness. People with Down syndrome, for example, are often of shorter stature, tending to be rounder in shape (also influenced by lower muscle tone) as they age – why are they all so fat many must wonder, I’m sure – and many often have issues with their teeth, rendering their often gap-toothed smiles, somewhat surprising in their older years.

NoamAnd so what, really? Those of us without genetic disorders to complicate matters, struggle to eat well, manage our weight, get to the dentist and look attractive to the rest of the world on a day-to-day basis. Much as we might judge ourselves, we’re not found wanting before we’ve even left the door.

Jewish educator and spiritual healer, Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, once showed me a fantastic handout that he’d made up for use in his counseling work. Simkha presents a good list of “some possibilities”, not ordered, as he says by “intensity, importance, or suffering.”

What is stigmatized in the contemporary Jewish world
By Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, LCSW © 2008

Not having children
Mental Illness
vinnieLearning differences; Developmental Disabilities
Suicide of a near/dear one
Obesity, or even just overweightedness
Skin problems
Poverty, Homelessness
Unemployment
Employment that is not ‘professional’ or otherwise lucrative and/or high status
Having children pursuing non-professional jobs
Not being married
Dressing in a decidedly unfashionable and idiosyncratic way
Jews by Choice, and those that choose them
Jews of color
Single parents by choice
People whose children aren’t married
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Individuals, and all things connected to them

Akiva and me*Certainly we all know individuals and groups within the Jewish community who do not hold these stigmatizing feelings or ideas, but consider how extensive they are in general, from a bird’s eye view. And, of course, many if not all of these are shared by many in the general culture, alas. This list is not in any order of preponderance, priority, or any other hierarchy.

Quite a list, right? What else might you add to it? 

As Simkha himself notes, not everyone stigmatizes and judges all those on the list, but anyone who’s experienced a moment of stigma, or, of judgement because of difference, or for anyone who has watched someone we love be judged, just because – it hurts. Desperately so. And even if we are caring people, who’ve watched for someone who’s been judged, we may, inadvertently judge and stigmatize someone else. We’re humans. We make mistakes. We hurt others. Willingly and unwittingly. 

So, the next time you see someone who looks different, someone in a wheelchair, someone elderly with a vacant expression, someone who just strikes you as…not quite like the other, pause and admire them. Find their beauty and give it weight and acceptance.

Giving and Receiving

IMG_4199

Giving. End-of-year appeals. December fundraising. It’s a rite of passage if you’re a non-profit. Developing a method, telling a story, making a compelling ask to your people, your friends, those who believe in and support your mission. It’s grueling and grinding, filled with weeks of prep work, both tech and admin, writing and re-writing, until you’re ready for prime time.

Some years ago, when Shutaf was still a very new project, I spoke with an experienced and successful fundraiser in Jerusalem. He shared with me how he regularly reached out to the supporters of his organization  – by phone when he can’t see them in person – but that every time he picks up the phone, he hopes that they won’t answer. I  know exactly what he means.

Asking someone to give? It takes tremendous self esteem and yes, belief in your mission. And a good portion of moxie. I deeply respect the desire to give, to give well and to enjoy the act of giving as well as feeling proud that you’ve found and contributed to a cause you like.  Asking? That’s another story.

And yet, where would we be if people didn’t ask. If we didn’t receive those asks and then, open up our hearts and take a chance on whatever project it is. Just because. Just because our friend asked us, or because we read a story that moved us, or because we decided that this was the moment to give.

This December, wherever you’re moved to make a difference, do it with pride, do it with meaning and do it with enjoyment. Know that we, those who toil away, working in the field, deeply appreciate every time you dig deep into your pockets and show us, time and time again that our work is meaningful.

Thank you and Happy Chanukah from Jerusalem.

 

Shutaf Camp Day 2 – From Joelle Lang

Yet another exhausting, but immeasurably rewarding day at Camp Shutaf has passed; the start of what can only be a beautiful week.

Camp Shutaf has perhaps discovered the absolute best way to start any day with happiness, meaning, and love.  When all the camper groups are still in the “big room” after happily having greeted their counselors, the campers and counselors form a big circle and begin to sing and dance.  While they sing, one camper or counselor skips around the inner circle until he chooses a different camper/counselor to join him and take his place. Meanwhile, the children and counselors on the side sing and clap.  When a camper is chosen to dance inside the circle, the feeling of joy is palpable.  His smile expands and his face lights up.  It is a precious moment.  It is going to be extremely hard to replace this morning ritual when camp comes to an end.

The Shoko Bananas, or “Chocolate Bananas Group”:

The Shoko Banana’s number one camper group rule is that the morning must be started with a smile.  Those smiles do not leave the campers’ faces all day.

The Shoko Bananas began their day making large trains down the slides in the big playground with their counselors, followed by “sport,” where they dribbled soccer balls through poles and scored goals.  Because of their group success in scoring goals, each camper began referring to his friend as “Renaldo,” after the famous soccer player.

The Shoko Bananas took their next activity, scrapbooking, very seriously.  They worked so meticulously and purposefully, it was as if they had visions they were trying to put onto paper.  They were so proud of their finished products, they spent the rest of the camp day showing them off to the other groups.

The Shoko Banana’s final activity was “the balls.”  The campers took turns rolling big, blow-up balls carrying their friends down the hill and back up again.  The Shoko Bananas had such a great time; they could not stop talking about their experiences inside the balls. After climbing out of the balls, their hair ruffled and clothing pulled, each Shoko Banana exclaimed, “aiza kef!,” “what fun!”

Yet another exhausting but rewarding day in the amazing Camp Shutaf has passed and no one can wait to see what fun tomorrow will bring.

Shutaf Camp Day 1 – From Joelle Lang

Stepping through the open doors of Camp Shutaf is like entering into a whole new world. Shutaf is a world filled with laughter and playfulness and love.  A world that brings about smiles and glowing faces, created for the sole purpose of spreading happiness.  Everywhere campers pile onto their beloved counselor’s backs, and make themselves at home in their counselor’s laps.   The joy overcomes you and inspires you to find a way to pay forward the warmness that surrounds the camp.

The best way to describe the Avatiachs, or “Watermelons,” (one of the Shutaf camper groups), and that includes the counselors, is that they are overflowing with energy.

A day in the life of an Avatiach:

After proudly chanting their bunk song in front of the other groups in camp, the overjoyed Avatiachs begin their day by receiving jobs.  Each camper receives a responsibility for the day, which they proudly wear as watermelon-shaped necklaces, ranging from “giving out cereal” to “making sure no one complains.”  The Avatiachs work as a group, each camper is a cog in the wheel that keeps the bunk running.

The first activity of the day was Sport. The sports counselor began with stretches followed by a game of hopping on circles and throwing a soccer ball into a hoop.  The cheers of the Avatiachs could be heard across the camp.

The hot, red-faced Avatiachs then headed to Art.  The minute the highly energized Avatiachs entered the art room they were overtaken by the calm aura of the art instructor.  They made people, animals and stars that were attached to boards making their works of art pop up when pushed down.  The concentration and creative vibe in the art room were clear on the Avatiachs’ faces.

Afterwards, the Avatiachs and all their energy took their lunches outside to the big playground where they swung on swings, climbed ladders and slid down slides.   It was incredible to watch them help each other navigate through the playground tower.

The last activity and perhaps the most exciting was Animals. The campers listened carefully as the animal-activity staffer described the differences between people and animals, and shrieked loudly when he put a goose on the floor for the campers to pet.  The goose did not stay for long.  The campers did however have a lot of fun passing around and giving names to different types of hamsters and rabbits.

The Avatiachs are a fantastic group!  The campers were so kind and excited to be with each other, it did not appear that any camper could possibly feel left out.  In other words, the Avatiachs are like one big, happy family.

After a camp day filled with one fun activity after another, if all the Avatiachs don’t collapse on their beds when they get home, I can definitely assure you their counselors do.

Accepting Grace: The Choice of Prenatal Testing

Originally posted as “Prenatal Testing: Making the Right Choice” in the online edition of Charisma Magazine on June 18, 2013.

Acceptance. Finding grace. Being chosen. In the Old Testament, we are given many examples of ordinary people coping with extraordinary decisions both ethical and moral.

Sometimes they stumble, such as Moses hitting the rock instead of speaking to it at Meribah, or the children of Israel’s Korach-led rebellion in the book of Numbers. Sometimes they are challenged, as in the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son, Isaac, or Esther the Jewess becoming wife to Persia’s King Ahasuerus.

Making choices is what life is about, along with gratitude for G-d’s gifts, even the seemingly hard-to-understand ones. When my youngest son, Akiva, who has Down syndrome and autism, was born almost 16 years ago, many people asked me, “Didn’t you know?” or “Didn’t you test?”

I was 34, almost 35, when I became pregnant for the third time. We lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a young, upwardly mobile neighborhood with liberal values and a penchant for Mexican food. Our friends and egalitarian-minded Jewish community were made up of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Disability was present in the greater community, but there were few, if any, children with Down syndrome. Akiva, who was born at home, was and is a chosen and loved child, despite the surprise of his diagnosis.

In the years since his birth, I’ve discovered that for many, choosing not to test for genetic disorders is simply considered irresponsible. Today, prenatal testing is described as safer than ever, and it can determine many genetic aberrations in addition to Down syndrome. Once you’ve tested and discovered an issue, the most sensible and advised course of action, in my world, is to abort the defective fetus. If you don’t test or choose not to abort, you represent a population that is assumed to be, in the words of a Jerusalem-based writer, “traditional or very observant … couples who refuse to have an abortion … [and] prefer to raise a less-than-perfect child.”

Wow. A less-than-perfect-child. Is that the child who goes out drinking in his teens, crashes up the car and flunks out of school? Or is that the child diagnosed at three with autism, learning disabilities or the new epidemic of our time, depression?

Or worse, is it the child who breaks the law and ends up in jail, lost to his family, perhaps forever? It’s a strange and offensive assumption to make, that parents of children with Down syndrome, a seemingly preventable disability—and let’s stretch that to children with other disabilities as well—prefer our children, imperfect as they may be. And how simplistic is it to presume that a person who lives a religion-based life finds it any easier to accept difference than their secular peers, a sort of “Punish me, I deserve this hardship because of my religious commitment”?

As for preferring a less-than-perfect child, to what, I ask? To their typical brethren? When did we lose sight of the ethical and moral issues here, that these are children who were, certainly in our case, planned and desired additions to a family?

Having come to maturity during the age of a woman’s right to choose, most of my circle considers it their absolute right to choose pregnancy and not have it chosen for them. They chose to become pregnant, and unless that choice led to infertility and its corresponding difficulties, they became pregnant. Once pregnant, they set out to have the perfect pregnancy, complete with appropriate exercise classes, stylish maternity outfits and a skilled practitioner who would deliver said healthy baby at the best hospital when the time came. They wanted their babies, those perfect babies, the ones with the number 10 apgar scores at birth, what they believed was their right to receive.

I won’t deny the at times painful facts of parenting my son. He’s chronologically 15 but operates at a much younger level. He sat up unassisted at 22 months, walked at six and requires assistance for most of his basic needs. He also has an excellent sense of humor, a real knack for languages and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater, much like our eldest son.

Accepting the birth of or later diagnosis of a child with a disability is a moment of reckoning—for the child, for the parents, for the family, friends and extended community. For many, what initially feels like tragedy gradually becomes normal. Discovering that you are capable of loving, caring and accepting difference has a way of changing you for the better. While there are families who are divided by disability, there are families who are united, learning to support each other through challenge and relishing those special and sometimes long-awaited moments of success.

It’s funny. While I reject the notion that we as a family were chosen “to bear this burden,” or that “it was G-d’s will,” and I hated when people said things like, “Akiva couldn’t have been born into a better family,” I recognized that there was a part of me that did feel that we had been uniquely prepared for this mission, perhaps because of our lifestyle as a homeschooling family or because of our supportive religious community or maybe because Akiva was our third boy—we knew how to do this. We chose not to test. We didn’t play Russian Roulette; we had a baby.

הגיעה שעתה של הנדבנות הישראלית

הכתבה המקורית מאת מקור ראשון ב-10 ליוני 2013.

בכל פעם שאני נוסעת לחוץ לארץ בשביל שותף, הארגון שהקמתי למען שילובם של ילדים ובני נוער עם מוגבלויות בחברה, אני נפעמת מרמת המודעות הגבוהה של הקהילה היהודית בארצות הברית לנושא המוגבלויות. המודעות הזאת מתבטאת בנדיבות רבה ונכונות להירתם בכדי לסייע לאלו הזקוקים לעזרה.

בנסיעותיי אני נתקלת בקהילות בהן מטפחים, מעודדים ומשלבים אנשים עם מוגבלויות בחיי הקהילה. מבין בתי הכנסת, בתי הספר והמרכזים הקהילתיים הרבים בהם ביקרתי, רובם ככולם נגישים באופן מלא לנכים, החל מכניסות נטולות המדרגות וכלה בדלתות השירותים הענפים. בבית כנסת אחד ליד פילדלפיה, מועסק מומחה ויועץ לנושאי חינוך, ותפקידו לעבוד בשיתוף עם הרכז החינוכי של בית הספר בכדי ליצור תוכניות לימוד המסייעות לילדים מוגבלים להתכונן לבר המצווה שלהם ומקדמת את השתלבותם בכיתת הלימוד כתלמידים מן המניין. לאותו בית כנסת יש בימה הנגישה לנכים המאפשרת לכולם לקחת חלק בתפילה המועברת במקביל בשפת הסימנים למען חברי הקהילה החירשים. מדהים, לא?

בירושלים, בתי כנסת ומניינים מתכנסים במקלטים, בתי ספר ומרכזים קהילתיים אחרים ברוב המקרים אינם נגישים לבעלי מוגבלויות, מקומות הישיבה והשירותים אינם מותאמים לצרכיהם של קבוצה זו. בקהילות אורתודוקסיות, הבעיה כפולה שכן ישיבה בנפרד מקשה על זוג הורים לנהל ולטפל בצרכים של ילדיהם.

בארה”ב מושקעים מאמצים רבים בכדי להגביר את המודעות בקרב רבנים ואנשי חינוך מתלמדים לגבי ההתייחסות לבעלי מוגבלויות. זו יוזמה מבורכת אך היא לא שמה למטרה את ראשי הקהילה אשר רובם אינם מכירים כלל את הנושא. המצב רחוק מלהיות אידיאלי, אך עם זאת, המצב עדיף בהרבה ממה שקיים בארץ.

תתארו לכם כיצד מערכת החינוך הייתה נראית אם רבנים ומורים המקבלים תקציבי מדינה היו מחויבים לעבור הכשרה והדרכה בנושא חינוך ילדים עם מוגבלויות כחלק מהכשרתם הבסיסית. אלה היו יכולים בתורם לחנך את חברי קהילותיהם ותלמידיהם, לגרום להם לרצות להפוך את בתי הכנסת והמרכזים הקהילתיים שלהם לנגישים וכוללניים יותר ולהעלות על סדר היום עיסוק הלכתי בסוגיות הקשורות לטיפול בבעלי מוגבלויות בשבת ובחגים.

מימון של בתי כנסת ויוזמות קהילתיות בארצות הברית הוא קשה להשגה, אך לפחות המיזמים הללו זוכים לתמיכה של הרשויות המקומיות. בישראל, קיימת מודעות לנושא, בנושא הנגישות חוקקו חוקים בעניין, אך היישום והאכיפה חסרים כתוצאה מהיעדר אמצעים כלכליים. כאשר יש צורך במסגרות מיוחדות, עיריות עמוסות מסתמכות על ארגונים ללא מטרות רווח, להרים את הכפפה ולהשיג מימון. כתוצאה מכך, ארגונים כמו שלי יוצאים לרחוב בכדי לגייס כספים. אני מבינה וחווה באופן אישי את התהייה “איפה הנדבנים הישראלים?” בתי יוקרה בירושלים, דירות נופש לאורך קו החוף, עושר בקנה מידה משמעותי קיים במדינת ישראל. בימינו, נשמעים סיפורי הצלחה כלכלית לצד פיתוחים תוצרת הארץ בלי הרף, בכל הזדמנות מזכירים את הנס הכלכלי של מדינת ישראל. אם אכן זו המציאות, מדוע כשאני נשאלת לגבי הנדבנות הישראלית עלי להודות שהיקף המימון מכספים פרטיים הוא יחסית מזערי, שעיריית ירושלים מימנה את הפעילות שלנו רק פעם אחת ושגם תמיכה זו הייתה מצומצמת. הרוב המוחלט של המימון שלנו, הוא מארצות הברית.

הגיע הזמן שישראלים יתחילו לתת חזרה, לחולל שינוי אמיתי בצורה שאנחנו מתייחסים לחברה שלנו.

פגשתי נדבן אחד שפועל בשיקגו, הוא אמר לי ששם, נוקטים בגישה אגרסיבית, הגובלת במאפיונריות כאשר פונים לתורמים פוטנציאלים. בעל עסק מוצלח חייב להחזיר לקהילה, במידה ולא יעשה זאת, הוא יחווה ירידה בעסקים. אכן מדובר בגישה קשוחה, אחרי הכול מדובר בשיקגו, אבל אי אפשר להכחיש את היעילות שלה. תורמים חדשים מתווספים לקהילת הנדבנים, נוצרת שייכות לקהילה ורגשות גאווה נקשרות בנתינה.

זה רעיון לא רע בשביל ישראל, מדינה קטנה בה כולם מכירים את כולם על שווי בתיהם וגובה משכורותיהם. תחושת העיירה הקטנה היא מושלמת לעידוד תמיכה במסגרות מקומיות, כולם מכירים מישהו עם אח או ילד עם מוגבלויות, כל אחד יכול לתת, כל אחד יכול לתמוך. המסר הוא שאפשר להביא לשינוי, תרומה לחברה ונדבנות זה חיוני לחברה בריאה, היא מייצרת אושר ותומכת בנזקקים.

אני סמוכה ובטוחה שהנתינה והנדבנות משאר העולם תתגבר ברגע שהנדבנות הישראלית תתחזק. המחאות החברתיות, המאבק להנגיש את הכותל לבעלי נכויות, מדובר בתנועות שמוכיחות שישראלים יכולים ליצור דיאלוג, יכולים להילחם למען שינוי ומסוגלים לדרוש בפה מלא מהממשלה להתייחס לסוגיות החשובות לחברה. השימוש בעושר פרטי הוא דרך להבהיר לממשלה מה הן הסוגיות העומדות על סדר היום של הציבור ובכך להניע אותם להשקיע מאמצים בהתאם.

בת’ שטיינברג היא המנהלת והמקימה של ארגון השותף, היוצר ומוביל פעילויות ומסגרות לילדים ובני נוער עם מוגבלויות בירושלים בין הגילאים 6-21.

The Time has Come for Israeli Philanthropy to Grow

Originally posted on eJewish Philanthropy on May 27, 2013

Each time I travel for Shutaf, the inclusion program that I helped found in Jerusalem for children and teens with disabilities, I learn about the face of disability awareness in the North American Jewish community as well as its generosity to programs serving those in need.

I visit communities where people with disabilities are nurtured, encouraged and included in community life. Of the many synagogues, schools and community centers which I visit, almost all are fully handicapped accessible, from their wide-doored bathrooms to their stair-free entranceways. One synagogue near Philadelphia, has an Education Specialist who works in partnership with the Hebrew school’s Educational Director to prepare students with disabilities – some of them not insignificant – for their B’nai Mitzvah, and help facilitate their inclusion into the classroom. This same synagogue has a ramped bimah that allows every member to take part in a Saturday morning service that is signed for members who are hearing-impaired. Amazing, right?

In Jerusalem, synagogues and minyanim meet in bomb shelters, schools and other community spaces that are rarely friendly to people with disabilities – from the seating to the stairs to the “handicapped inaccessible” bathrooms. If it’s an Orthodox community, there’s the added complication of separate seating which can make it difficult for a two-parent family to manage a child’s needs.

In the US, efforts are underway to help educate rabbis and educators in training about disability but that does little for community leaders and educators in the field, many of whom know very little about disability issues and successful community integration. Yet while the situation is far from perfect, it is head and tails above efforts here in Israel.

Imagine if in Israel rabbis receiving government funding were required to be educated about disability issues as part of their training pastoral training. These leaders could then educate their communities, inspiring them to raise funds and make their synagogues and other communal spaces accessible and inclusive, as well as field Jewish-law-questions that might arise about the needs of people with disabilities in synagogue life, especially on Shabbat and holidays.

While funding for synagogue and community-based initiatives remains an uphill climb in North America, they at least have the implicit buy-in from their local Federations. In Israel, while there is awareness of these issues, and in the case of accessibility there are laws in place, compliance is limited because resources are hard to find. When it comes to programs, overburdened municipalities depend on mostly small nonprofits to do their work and find the necessary funds.

So, nonprofits like mine, unapologetically go on the road in order to fundraise. I understand and empathize with the question “where are the Israeli philanthropists?” From luxurious homes in Jerusalem to palatial beachfront properties along Israel’s coastline, wealth, and some of it on a grand scale, exists in Israel. Israel’s startup nation tells tale after tale of financial success and boasts about the economic miracle that is taking place.

So when I’m asked about Israeli support, I have to admit that private and foundation giving in Israel is limited, that the Jerusalem municipality has funded us only once, and that our government support also remains quite limited. The bulk of our budget? Almost entirely from the US.

Israelis, it’s time to start giving back. To start making a difference in our own backyards.

I met a Chicago-based philanthropist who told me that his town takes an almost mafioso-like approach towards reeling in new donors. A person makes it financially? Mazal tov. Start giving or suffer a drop in your business from the local community. Maybe it’s heavy handed – it is Chicago after all – but they add new donors to their rolls and they mentor them, so that each newcomer can develop a sense of commitment and pride in their giving.

Not such a bad idea for Israel, a small country where everyone knows everything about you, from your salary to the cost of your home and where you served in the army. That small town attitude is perfect for encouraging support of local programs. That guy from your unit? He’s got a kid with a disability and needs your shekels in order to support a program in his community. Help your army compadre, and put your name on the door if you’d like, too. No problem.

Be proud that you can make a difference – that’s a fine message to share with new donors. Spreading the wealth feels good, and creates abundance for so many as well as answers needs and maybe even makes new jobs for locals.

And I believe that giving worldwide to Israel will grow even further if donors see that Israelis are stepping up to the plate and doing the same, giving – at home, in their communities.

This past year’s elections, the battle for making the Kotel accessible to all individuals, the rallies in support of social change – all of these movements have shown Israelis that they can create dialogue, fight for change and demand that government agencies respond to issues of importance to a variety of Israelis. Using wealth is another way to make it clear that the government needs to respond to what the citizens are willing to put their support and yes, their money behind.

Shutaf and Ramah High School in Israel – Yoshua Goodman

Photo by Layla Gordon

A Shutaf Experience by Yoshua Goodman, a recent participant on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, a High School program for North American teenagers run by the Ramah Camping Movement. Thanks Yosh!

During TRY we have had the great opportunity to be partners with an organization called Shutaf. What is Shutaf? I could say that Shutaf is a youth movement like USY or BBYO or Noam but Shutaf is much more than that. Shutaf is a place where kids my age with special needs can go and hang out with friends and live a “normal” life! When we had our first Shutaf meeting, I thought to myself about how I did not want to help or do anything the speaker said that she wanted us to raise 5,000$ and I thought that she was crazy! I stopped paying attention, and out of nowhere I hear “Wake up Yosh!” It was the speaker talking to me! She knew my name! She was my 5th grade teacher! After the orientation, I spoke to her because I felt bad about snoozing off and because I haven’t talked to her in so long! She was my favorite 5th grade teacher! Morah Liz! I had no idea that I would ever see her ever again. Not is she only my 5th grade teacher, she might be the coolest person I have ever met!

Here’s a bit more about what Shutaf does. Shutaf is a non-profit organization providing after-school and summer camp inclusion programs for children and teens with special needs. Shutaf is the only organization of its kind in Jerusalem that integrates children with special needs along with their peers who don’t have special needs (they do it with a reverse inclusion model, it’s really different). Shutaf brings children together in a supportive, inclusive, and pluralistic community, and is committed to ensuring that its programs are available to all of Jerusalem’s families regardless of family income, providing generous scholarships to all those in need.

Last Thursday I had an opportunity to meet the kids; we got into a big circle and ate dinner together and played games. I went out of my comfort zone and tried talking to the kids. It was difficult because of the language barrier, but then I realized that my Hebrew wasn’t as bad as I thought it was! I began talking to them in Hebrew and I understood most of the things they said to me! I asked them what they liked to do, and they liked things that I enjoy like listening to music! Some of them actually listen to the music that I like! By the end of the night, I felt totally connected to the Shutaf kids and I cared! Now I have decided that I will help raise those 5,000$ and that there are no causes better than Shutaf! A person with special needs should not be turned down to go to camp because of financial issues.

Visit http://www.campshutaf.org/donate/ to donate now.

Inclusion: It Also Means There’s Lots Of Ways To Do It

From the New York Jewish Week’s blog, The New Normal: Blogging Disability, April 29, 2013. 

Okay, I know I can be a bit defensive, bristly almost, when it comes to talking about almost anything that I care about. I own that. When it comes to disability and inclusion, I can go a little overboard, but someone’s got to do the dirty work, right?

We were at a meeting: me, my Shutaf team members and with a respected colleague whose expertise is including children with disabilities in educational settings. In a discussion of how to create a program of outreach, education and inclusion for Jerusalem teens, with and without disabilities, she corrected our organization’s definition of what we call inclusion, explaining that facilitating the entry point of people with disabilities into the community of the typical, that is, us, those without a disability, is the only way to describe the term.

I was shocked and upset at having Shutaf’s “reverse-inclusion” model questioned. Okay, maybe a bit defensive too, as my team members pointed out after the meeting. At Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, we serve children and teens with special needs – a broad range of issues are included together – along with their peers who don’t have special needs at a ratio of 3:1. Meaning, those with disabilities outnumber their peers without disabilities, an admittedly unorthodox model. Our aim is to offer the best possible program for both populations, regardless of their differences.

So, when I hear that there’s only one way to include or only one way to define how we include, I get offended. It makes me realize how far we have to go in order to relax, stop defining and just start including. I’m always reminded what Professor Arie Rimmerman, an international figure in the field from the University of Haifa, noted when he visited our summer program last year. He said, forget about definitions and models and ratios, explaining “inclusion means everyone finding their place.” And that means all of us, with all of our issues and frailties, successes and failures, belief systems and cultural backgrounds. I like that, don’t you?

Recently, I wrote about expanding the terms used to describe people with disabilities, or better yet, our acceptance of a greater variety of terms used to for people with disabilities — special needs, cognitively disabled, or, whatever the moniker of the moment is — along with the services that the community offers.

Inclusion has to be a two-way street, an eight-lane highway, and not a four-way stop sign. People with disabilities have limited access to everything: schools, after school, camps, employment, living in the community and beyond. I’m not kidding, here. They really do. “He’s just not independent enough for this program,” I remember being told some years ago about my son. This without even meeting him.  Or, my other favorite line “is he high-functioning or low-functioning?” Funny, you should talk about him with his teacher of the past two years, his best critic but his biggest fan.

Again, it always seems to come down to semantics, as opposed to really making the world a welcoming place for all. Now, in truth, this colleague and I are on the same page, and as we continued our conversation we worked through the chaff, ultimately finding a meeting point that will allow us to reach more teens — with and without disabilities — giving them a chance to see themselves as young leaders, as movers and shakers in the fight for equality for all.

I’m raising the banner for inclusion in the broadest sense. Both my colleagues in the disability community and the rest of the world needs to see my flag, and yours.  Join me and be visible, verbal and upfront about why inclusion matters to you.