I started my consulting career doing some training work with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Since February is designated as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), I thought this week might be a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned about juggling multiple minority identities as a person who is both Jewish and disabled.
I like to self-identify as being “blind and Jewish since birth” since I consider both identities to be integral to my being throughout my life. Both identities are statistically rare: in the United States where I live, less than 1% of Americans identify as blind, and about 2% of Americans identify as Jewish. Judaism isn’t just a religion; it encompasses a rich culture and community. Disability, too, constitutes a source of cultural identity and community belonging for many of us.
I was fortunate to be involved in both communities while growing up. For the most part, I was included in both communities. I had an accessible Hebrew school experience and a Bat Mitzvah similar to that of my peers. In the blindness community, I never encountered any real anti-Semitism. However, there were a few times when one of my identities led to feelings of isolation in the other group.
For example, when I was attending a youth weekend retreat for Jewish teens once, they took us to an arcade. Between go-carts, bumper cars, video games and laser tag, most modern arcades may as well have a sign saying “blind people need not enter.” I spent most of the night chatting with the adult group leader, who was very gracious, but not something any 14-year-old really wants to do. I was in a group of my fellow Jews, but was isolated by an environment that didn’t accommodate my disability.
Another time, I went to an event put on by the local agency for blind children just before Easter. We were offered a choice between decorating Easter eggs and learning how to make egg salad. Because Jews don’t celebrate Easter, I had no interest in decorating eggs, and I liked to cook, so I chose the egg salad option. I did not realize that I was the only child choosing not to decorate eggs. Again, the result was unintentional separation from my peers, who shared my blindness, because I was Jewish.
In the presence of fellow Jews, I often felt hyper-aware of my differentness as a visibly disabled person. And in the presence of my fellow disabled people, I often felt hyper-aware of my differentness as a Jew. I was always excited to meet others at the intersection (blind Jews), but they were few and scattered. Consequently, especially during my teen years, I began to feel like I was a member of two important but mutually exclusive communities, which seemed to be pulling my identity in opposing directions. To complicate things further, all of my family members were Jewish, but none of them were blind. As a teenager going through the typical developmental process of distinguishing myself from family, I found myself feeling pulled further toward the blind community. I also encountered much more frequent discrimination due to my disabled identity than I did due to my Jewish identity, so I stuck close to my blind and disabled peers in self-defense. But my sense of identity and belonging in the Jewish community suffered.
Working in the Jewish disability inclusion world has been a transformative experience for me. Over the last three years I have met national Jewish leaders who Saw inclusion as an imperative, not just for the benefit of disabled Jews, but for the benefit of the community as a whole. I met colleagues who valued my expertise as a disabled person and involved me in the process of making change, and this catalyzed a personal healing process. I began to recognize my Jewish and disabled identities as complementary rather than oppositional, and to integrate both of them into my being.
Regarding JDAIM, my colleague Lisa Handelman from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington writes:
As a society, we strive to shift from a focus on kindness to a demand for justice; from the idea that inclusion is about helping others to the knowledge that it is about strengthening the collective; from creating particular programs to making all opportunities accessible.
These words ought to serve as a model, not only for all religious communities, but for all communities bound by cultural, historical, and civic ties. At the same time, disability communities have a duty to recognize the diverse racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, gender and other identities of their members, and how those identities interact with the disability experience to shape their lives.