The Conspiracy

Merging My Judaism and Disability Advocacy

I’ve met member of the House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus Rep. James Langevin (D-RI), networked with RespectAbilityUSA president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and practiced my ASL with program director of Gallaudet University Hillel Jacob Salem, the first-ever Hillel director who is Deaf.

“I felt at the forefront of Jewish communal efforts to make our culture more inclusive.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

One year ago, as a freshman at American University, I could scarcely imagine having any of these opportunities. This year, it’s all in a typical Tuesday.

Let me back up for just a minute to explain.

I had never heard of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day or even Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month until the fall of 2016, when the former director of engagement at AU Hillel invited me to participate. Curious and excited by this chance to explore the intersection of two of my most central identities, I registered to attend the event, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I traveled to Capitol Hill with a friend from AU Hillel, eager to learn and hoping to find some ideas to bring back to campus.

Ultimately, I came back with so much more. Just a few short days after the event, I hosted my own Disability Inclusion Shabbat at Hillel, the first event of its kind on my campus, where I introduced concepts I had learned from the speakers and attendees at the advocacy day, along with materials I had prepared myself.

These events were products of a synergistic relationship between two of the most fundamental aspects of my being – my Jewish identity and my disability advocacy. I felt at the forefront of Jewish communal efforts to make our culture more inclusive.

I have found my two identities merged in a movement of disability inclusion advocates whose work is fueled, informed, and enriched by their Jewish values.

At this year’s advocacy day, Rabbi Gary Pokras, the leader of Congregation Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, summarized this mission well., “What we are doing today is truly in the order of the Torah,” he said. “It is truly holy. This isn’t just practicing the Jewish value of helping others, but instead is [what it means to be] Jewish.”

And joining me in this holy work are my fellow Jewish students.

Seated at my table in the Rayburn House Office Building during the advocacy day program was Adam Fishbein, a fellow AU Hillel student. Last year, he stood up to ask a question of the assembled experts that struck me as particularly brave for its humility: “What advice do you have for me as a self-advocate? How can I be a better self-advocate?”

The answer isn’t simple, but Hillel empowering students like us to become self-advocates for the issues that matter most to us – students like the Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadors who fan out on campuses across the country to host disability inclusion initiatives and start groundbreaking conversations about inclusion on campus.

“As a college student, it’s so important to come to [these events] and learn about these issues so we can bring the knowledge back to campus and make a difference,” said Gabrielle Nurenberchik, a Jewish student at Susquehanna University. She was inspired to come to this year’s advocacy day after attending the Ruderman Inclusion Summit in November. Like so many of us, her interest in disability inclusion is amplified by her Judaism, and in addition, her connection to her Jewish identity is strengthened through her advocacy work.

Seeing the Jewish values I grew up with reflected in the world of social justice work, I have become a more curious, compassionate, and open-minded student disability advocate. By learning how people with disabilities have historically found leadership opportunities in the Jewish community – even pivotal leadership roles,  like Moses, who had a speech impediment, or Jacob, who had a limp – I am finding myself more at home in my religion than I have ever felt.

Lily Coltoff is a student at American University and a communications intern at Hillel International.

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