Teaching Disability Inclusion One Shabbat at a Time

My initial reaction after the fact was relief.

After months of planning, weeks of searching for the perfect readings, and a few crazy days of racing around like a chicken with its head cut off, I had finally crafted my first Friday night Shabbat service. And thankfully, it was a success.

“Learning and understanding were at the core of it all.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

Earlier this year, as part of Jewish Disability Advocacy and Inclusion Month, I helped create American University Hillel’s first ever Disability Inclusion Shabbat. The service and dinner were designed to teach students about the meaning of accessibility, acceptance, and inclusion, and to talk about what we have accomplished as an institution and what we still need to do.

For me, this night was incredibly important as it allowed me to marry two topics that have had a tremendous impact on my life: Judaism and disability. I was born with a genetic disorder called Neurofibromatosis that has impacted my life in many ways. A benign brain tumor required years of chemotherapy as treatment when I was younger. Though I am stable and relatively healthy now, I still have to deal with other issues related to the disorder, including fine and gross motor delays, extreme short stature, and some mild learning disabilities.

The Shabbat I led my freshman year mattered greatly to me – and my community – because it encouraged disabled students to contribute, lead, and share their experiences with others. Learning and understanding were at the core of it all.

We opened Shabbat with a service I led together with a friend, who has some learning disabilities and participates in AU’s academic support program, which allows students to meet with counselors for help with organization and assignments. We had designed the service to be accessible and educational, as well as enjoyable. Alongside typical Friday night prayers, we wove in readings about Moses and his speech impediment and a Mishebeirach (prayer for healing) for those with chronic illnesses. Instead of focusing on melodies and singing as we usually do, we focused on the words and their meaning. We invited people to stand if they could but made sure they knew they could sit on the floor or elsewhere if that was more comfortable.

During dinner, we posted statements from disabled students – both in the Hillel community and from American University’s greater student body – about how disability has affected their lives. There was no big speech or activity or even a call to action, just gentle nudges and small demonstrations of what disability and accessibility are. This Shabbat wasn’t much different from most of our other Shabbats, and that was intentional; the goal of the evening was to show students that accessibility doesn’t have to mean interruptions or straying from the status quo, just a little sensitivity and some planning ahead.

The overwhelmingly positive reactions of my peers, including the Jewish and non-Jewish disabled students who contributed, made me feel such joy and gratitude. Not only was I happy that something I had worked so hard to achieve turned out well, I was thrilled to realize that I was part of a community that cared about the values that I held dear. For me, a disabled Jewish student, this acceptance made me feel at home.

In fact, throughout the year, knowing I had a strong, supportive community and the safety net of my Hillel family helped me develop life skills and feel more comfortable taking risks as a freshman. I learned how to feel confident addressing a room and leading a group of my peers. I learned how to feel comfortable giving people instruction when leading a project – something I never imagined that I could do. I improved my organizational skills, both on the small scale of convening Jewish religious service leaders and on the larger scale of planning multi-organizational events. With my Disability Inclusion Shabbat, I experienced the process of taking an idea from conception to implementation.

I finished my freshman year with a greater appreciation for what it truly takes to be a leader and learned just how much organization it takes to ensure things run smoothly. I also discovered that with a little work and a lot of love, you can share your passions and make others care about them, too.

But more than that, I discovered that my Hillel community, once of strangers, is now a family that I can count on for support and comfort. I feel relieved knowing that I have the skills and friends I need to help me in the future. As I enter my sophomore year, I know the journey that began with Disability Inclusion Shabbat is not over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning – and I am so excited to see where it takes me.

Lily Coltoff of Erdenheim, Pennsylvania is an incoming sophomore at American University, where she is pursuing a major in communication studies and a minor in public health. She served as the Shabbat intern for AU Hillel during spring semester 2017 and is an AU Ambassador, a staff writer for AmWord magazine, and a member of the Pep Band.

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