In February, Yachad/the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an agency of the Orthodox Union, presented NAIM — North American Inclusion Month – as a national initiative to develop sensitivity and knowledge of what it means to live with disabilities and to educate communities on how they can do their part to make sure all Jews are properly included in all aspects of Jewish life.
How does one measure the achievements of such a mission? Is it even quantifiable? In addition to evaluation tools that can be helpful in identifying specific areas of accomplishment and where work needs to be done, one can gauge the mission’s success by the overwhelming response to it.
At Yachad we knew we had our work cut out for us, for there are many hot topics in the Jewish community that need addressing- the shidduch crisis, the economy, astronomical yeshiva tuition, to name a few. With all that going on in the Orthodox world, combined with the hectic schedules of Jewish institutions all over the continent, how were communities going to respond to the concept of NAIM?
Keeping in mind that Jewish institutions, especially those directed at youth, were going to be our areas of focus, we decided to come up with concrete ways to encourage their participation by creating a menu of opportunities for them to choose from.
These opportunities included fascinating speakers, renowned scholars-in-residence, sensitivity training, inclusive Shabbatonim, sermonic material, educational stories with questions, information pamphlets and much more. The NAIM website made many of these resources downloadable and easily accessible.
Now came the hard part — getting institutions to come on board and sign up to participate in any way possible. With the help of Yachad’s twelve national chapter program coordinators and a variety of OU departments, including Synagogue Services, Day School and Educational Services, NCSY, and Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, we were able to reach out to the broader community. As soon as word started getting around about NAIM, we began to receive lots of inquiries on how communities could participate.
As the message spread, inquiries began doubling and tripling – even from Jewish communities that were not on our radar. We coordinated more than 50 guest speakers all over the United States and Canada, more than 75 events and more than 200 partners. Most of the speakers were parents of children with disabilities and some of them were self-advocates, individuals who themselves have a disability and a strong message to share.
Tikvah Juni, 27, a Yachad member who eloquently addressed the OU annual dinner in December honoring Yachad’s 25th anniversary, spoke on two occasions for NAIM. “The feedback received about Tikvah’s talks and panel discussions was very positive,” said Tikvah’s father. “Many folks were inspired . She presents well and is a powerful discussant; not only did the community gain but Tikvah felt she gained a lot from the experience and the interchanges.”
One of the communities that contacted us was the Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, Connecticut, which wanted to do a special Shabbat for NAIM with a guest speaker and sign language interpreter, as the congregation has some members who are hearing impaired. We eagerly filled that request. After the program we received this response from a deaf woman in the audience: “Truly, I was very impressed with the interpreted Mussaf service. Tears ran unbidden through most of it, through the Kiddusha and the interpreted talk and the conversational give and take with the congregation. ”
An important aspect of NAIM was our mission to Washington, arranged by the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), to advocate for disability rights. Opportunities to meet and greet congressmen were set up to discuss four pieces of legislation that if approved would drastically improve the lives of families with children with disabilities. These bills include the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), and the Able Act, which allows families to set up tax-exempt accounts up to $500,000 to save for their child’s future and to help cover their child’s expenses.
Many of Yachad’s families from all over the country, as well as staff and advocates, participated in this mission. One parent’s words resonate with me. She said, “I know getting bills passed in government is a big process, and am unclear how my lobbying can affect its turnout, but something today gave me hope for the first time I feel like maybe I can make a difference.” Sure enough, a week later we received an e-mail from a congressman who expressed his change of position on a bill based on our meeting with him. Shortly after, one of the bills, HR 4247 – Keeping All Students Safe Act — passed in the House.