PEW Research recently rocked the Jewish community, releasing a nationwide poll that showed 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 identify as Jews of no religion. Among non-orthodox Jews, intermarriage rates are above 70%. Everywhere, save growth amongst Orthodox Jews, we are losing Jews at every turn. As a community and as philanthropists we have invested millions and millions of dollars to try to turn this tide, to try to engage the unengaged Jews.
Let me be clear, I believe in the fight for Jewish continuity. I would suggest, however, that there is a group of Jews, desperate to engage, who we are largely ignoring at best and excluding and isolating at worst: Jews with disabilities and their families.
When a parent is told by the Jewish community that their child isn’t welcome at a Jewish day school, camp, synagogue or religious school because they have a disability, it can change their relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community forever. As a parent I know first hand what it is like to have my child rejected from every aspect of Jewish life because of their disability. I am just one person, and fortunately, my Jewish connection is rock solid. But even for me it was horrific…painful…lonely. If I didn’t have a personal passion to stay engaged, I would have any number of reasons to have walked away years ago. Too many Jews have.
Imagine thousands of Jewish families who are already struggling (because their child has a disability) being told over and over that their child is not welcome at a Jewish event or institution because of their disability. What happens at the end of it – especially if that family is less connected than I am? The Jewish community loses the precious gift of the child with the disability who has the same spark of G-d as any other child. And, in many cases, we lose their entire family. Human beings — Jews — are being written off by Jewish institutions every day in our own communities.
So, when we did a major survey of engaged Jews for Jerusalem U, it was no surprise that young Jews with disabilities were basically not in the sample of engaged Jews. Here is a poll of 2607 Jews: http://www.scribd.com/doc/166998666/RespectAbilityUSA-Jerusalem-U-Online-Poll-of-Jews. Of the 223 Jews with disabilities in this sample (who were largely older Jews), 1 out of 5 said that their disability kept them out of the fold. And note that in a huge number of cases the Jewish community lost entire families because when one person in a family is denied access to the Jewish community because of their disability, you offend the entire family.
Given that 1/5 of people in America have a disability, we are talking huge numbers of Jews. True, disabilities are more likely in older people. But on average 12% of children in the United States today have disabilities. And since Jews have children at ages dramatically older than the general population, we are at much greater risk for Autism, Down syndrome and mental health issues. We therefore should expect to see a larger percentage of Jewish children with a disability. That means we could be excluding more than 12% of our Jewish children.
Take a look at real numbers:
I don’t think there is any Jewish group that does more to include Jews with disabilities than Jewish summer camps. They do so much to try to be inclusive of Jews with disabilities! Yet, on slide 50 of a separate detailed FJC study we did you can see the percentages of camps that won’t take certain categories of kids with special needs. These are very big numbers.
Note also that at the end of the deck there are slides with just parents of kids with disabilities who WERE included in Jewish camp activities. There are plenty of children who never made it to camp because of their disability but even those who were, you can see on slide 89, that 25% were first turned down by some Jewish camp based on their disability.
Birthright Israel and other programs spend tens of millions to try to recruit young Jews, many of whom don’t really express and interest in being in our fold, to jump into the fold and to self identify as Jews. I believe in such programs. Every Jew matters! But what about all the thousands and thousands of Jews with disabilities who WANT to be a part of the Jewish community? Too few are making a real effort to let them in.
What does it take to raise awareness, expectations and accommodations to ensure that we don’t lose Jews with disabilities and their entire families? I know that together we can and will make a difference to these Jews and to our entire community. Take a look at the polls in the links above. These are real numbers of real people we are losing – both the people with disabilities and their entire families who are alienated when we harden our hearts and gates to people with disabilities in our community. It’s time to be inclusive – before it’s too late!