As Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month wraps up, we want to share an exceptional D’var Torah delivered by Yoni Avitan, Educational Director at the NOAM Youth Movement and the Shaliach to USY (United Synagogue Youth).
He was invited to speak at the beautiful Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey as part of their activities for February’s Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month. Masorti applauds the congregation’s support for full participation by people with disabilities. The wholehearted support of the congregation’s leadership — Senior Rabbi Geoffrey Spector, Assistant Rabbi Simeon Cohen and President, Jay Jaffe — makes this possible.
Yoni speaks with passion about his connection to his Judaism, his Masorti kehillah and how both inform his commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. These are among the values that tie Temple Beth Shalom and Masorti Israel together.
Shabbat Shalom. I want to thank you for having me here with you on Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. I know that my story is only one of so many others that reflects on our Jewish values when we talk about disabilities, awareness and inclusion, and I am honored to share it with you.
For me, growing up, Judaism was such a positive experience. Positive and obvious. Going to my synagogue, to my youth movement NOAM, having a Bar Mitzvah, was just an obvious wonderful part of my life. It was also obvious to me that men and women have an equal part in the Jewish world and that kids with disabilities are part of this experience –going to a youth movement, having Bar/Bat Mitzvah and being a full participant in the Kehilla…
Little did I know how not obvious it is for everyone. After my army service, I started working for NOAM as a youth director. One day, out of the blue, I got a message from my Mom telling me that our mayor, from my hometown, Rehovot, decided to cancel the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of four kids from a special needs school in our town, only because it was held in a Conservative/Masorti synagogue. Our synagogue.
We didn’t give up. We decided to have it independently over the summer. Rabbi Mikie Goldstein invited the families to have the ceremony in our synagogue in Rehovot without their school, and I used that opportunity to bring all of my campers to the ceremony. I was the ninth graders’ counselor. Ninth grade is the leadership training summer, and these campers got to attend one of the most moving experiences they could imagine. It was a true class in Jewish leadership, in our very own movement, that made them realize much more about the difference we can make in the world.
In 2017 I got the biggest privilege to be a part of the Executive team of NOAM as the Educational Director of the movement, and the Director of Ramah-NOAM Summer camp. There, my team and I had to make A LOT of decisions. A lot of hard, confusing, decisions…
It was only when we got a special grant to launch a new initiative to include more teens with disabilities in our activities and programs, that we realized that there is something wrong about the way we talk about all of this. There is no difference between our teens, with their different parts of their identities, their different abilities or disabilities…they all need to know, feel, and be in an equal place, as a part of the movement. We don’t need to make special adjustments, and accept “them”, as if there is a specific OTHER that is not here and we need to bring in. It needs to be much more obvious that everyone is a full part of our movement, when it is very not obvious in our world.
Recently, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the King Center in Atlanta, I heard a sentence that I couldn’t agree more with – “Diversity is a fact, Inclusion is a choice”.
These are the important choices that I want to talk about- What do we choose to celebrate and put in the front? Are we “accepting” this fact of diversity or are we seeking to celebrate it and uplift it? What are our core values that lead us in these decisions?
I must say that I am proud of what we did in NOAM, when we were the first youth movement in Israel to bring the educational approach of UDL from the formal education to the informal education. UDL- Universal Design for Learning, came from the idea of Universal Design in architecture. The idea of Universal Design is to plan a building that will be accessible for all people, from the first stage of the design, without the need to make specific, personal adjustment.
In education, UDL will be the accessible way of learning, from the stage of designing a class, without the need to make specific adjustments. However, UDL is much more than an accessible way of learning. It became our educational and management “glasses.” We decided we won’t develop UDL for informal education only as a system that gives educators the tools to include kids and teens with disabilities in programs and events, rather we made it our approach for everything.
That is because that’s our values, and that is our compass for any decision– making sure everyone is safe, comfortable, valid and celebrated. We realized that everyone will gain more from that approach, and it’s not a good deed or a favor to anyone. When any kid with any ability or disability, or with any kind of identification, is a full integral part of any program and event, everyone can learn much more from each other, and everyone can be both in the educator and the learner position.
That way we were able to have hundreds of participants in the Avivim-Netaim special needs program in our summer camp. All were an integral part of the camp, in an obvious way for all of our kids and teens. That goes hand in hand with our special accessible manual and app for program writing (based on the UDL approach, Darkey Noam), along with an accessible special Masorti Siddur, B’chol Drachecha, and an accessible small Sefer Torah that can be used in our Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs for teens with disabilities.
All of these examples and investments that we made were not only a matter of being beneficial and educational within our movement, it is because we realize our responsibility in the Jewish world and in Israel- to model a better society, where everyone has a true equal part. To be the accessible and egalitarian Judaism that we strive to be every day.
Our core value and our decision is simple- working everyday to make our spaces bigger, more colorful and accessible for anyone, and as many as possible.
When we make these decisions and celebrate the existing diversity around us, our community will gain more and the world will gain more.
I call upon us in the Conservative/Masorti movement to be the pioneers who model this idea to the world, and to support the work of Masorti and NOAM in Israel, for Israel. I truly believe that that is exactly what we stand for in our perception of Jewish morals, and that is our Tikkun Olam mission.
Thank you for listening, Todah Rabah, and let’s work together towards our shared values!