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Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows Educator Blog

Including All Jews
October 24, 2010 by Howard Blas

In many ways, it was the perfect Jewish conference. And it had so much to do with the careful, thoughtful planning. Of course the location (mid-town Manhattan), the weather (a crisp clear autumn day), and the delicious kosher food contributed to the success of the day--but they were mainly incidental.

I have never been to a conference where the conference packet was available in large print and Braille, where the keynote addresses were signed by a professional sign language interpreter, and where several of the speakers, including Jerry White and Richard Bernstein, were professionals and motivational speakers who just happened to be people with disabilities (White lost a leg in a Golan Heights mine explosion; Bernstein is blind from birth). Even some of the “who's who” of Jewish communal leadership—including Jerry Silverman, Barry Shrage, Devorah Zlochower and Mark Charendoff-- spoke masterfully about their own connection to special needs.

I guess you might just expect such sensitivity and careful planning from Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference was perhaps the first ever coming together of more than 100 funders representing large foundations, smaller family funds, venture philanthropy and more. And they came for “deep-dive into issue area” morning sessions, and “strategies to maximize funding impact” sessions” in the afternoon. I was lucky enough to serve on the professional advisory committee and to chair the morning session on informal Jewish education.

Imagine the energy and excitement in the sessions devoted to formal Jewish education, informal (camping, Israel trips, college campuses), housing, vocational training, raising awareness, leveraging and partnering, and more!

Perhaps the greatest take home message of the conference is that people with disabilities have tons of abilities, and that funders—in attendance from the US, Canada, and Israel—along with program providers--can partner to do even more to include people with special needs in all aspect of Jewish communal life.

May we soon see the day when including all Jews in all aspects of Jewish life happens so naturally that there won’t need to be special conferences on the topic!