by Lisa Friedman

Most of the time I see the Jewish world through my Jewish Special educator lens. For me, last week’s NFTY Convention and Youth Engagement Conference were no exception.

Three significant things happened:

1.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs spoke of special needs and Jewish Disability Awareness Month from the bimah on Shabbat morning.  He shared the bimah with Evan Traylor, NFTY President, and the focus of their d’var Torah was the gifts that each of us has to offer. (Read the entire d’var Torah here.) Here is a portion of what he said about special needs education:

Three weeks ago, in Washington D.C., Jacob [a student with special learning needs] joined the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar to learn how to raise his voice for justice and for what’s right. He looked around, and said, “My gift is that I love to be part of this youth community. Even though it’s been painful that I haven’t always been let in and included, I feel a part of who we are.”…Jacob spoke up about Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, which we are in the midst of right now, about what it means to have special needs, what it means to have special gifts that are not appreciated. He said it was for our country, as well as our Jewish community, to make sure that we are inclusive of all the gifts that people bring.

…There are people who came to this NFTY Convention who weren’t sure that their gift would be understood and accepted. And there are many who didn’t come at all, because even as great as we are, we haven’t convinced the entire teen community that every single one of those gifts not only belongs, but that those gifts are needed. For Jacob, for us, for those here and for those not here, let us appreciate all of the gifts, all of the unique gifts that make us who we are, the ways in which God made each of us, that if we bring those gifts we can build a community of purpose and meaning, we can build a world of purpose and meaning.

2.  NFTY participants were given the opportunity to visit HaMercaz and learn about this wonderful organization. HaMercaz is a one-stop resource in Los Angeles that provides ongoing assistance, advocacy and support for families and teens with special needs and developmental disabilities. They offer Jewish holiday celebrations, support groups and counseling, parent and professional workshops, social programs and connections to Jewish community programs including those at synagogues, Jewish schools and camps.

3.  NFTY participants heard from Marc Elliot, author of “What Makes Me Tic,” who spoke about life with Tourette Syndrome. He brings his message of creating a culture of tolerance around the country. The students that I spoke to after his presentation were powerfully moved by his inspirational presence.

So here’s the thing.  While all of this is wonderful, I find myself thinking that each one existed as its own separate entity.  There was no enduring understanding, to my eye, that drew all of these moments together.  Don’t get me wrong; there was a time when inclusion and special education was an afterthought, if a thought at all, in our teen experiences.  These are huge strides and I do not want to oversimplify any of them.

But the message of NFTY Convention was “Make Your Move.” It was a call to action for our teens to make difference in the world, using their Jewish values as their guide.

Now it is our turn.  We serve our teens best when we lead by example. The time has come for a concerted and unified effort across our Movement to bring awareness and full inclusion to every facet of Reform Jewish life.

Can we make our move?

spotlight-badge-caring Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School with programs designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. In addition, Lisa’s works with families, staff and clergy to ensure a smooth transition for special needs students from Religious School through the b’nei mitzvah process and beyond.