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We are thankfully resuming some normal pre-pandemic activities.  Ramah Professional Conference and “Elevating Our Skills to Support All Staff” 3/6 and 3/7 in White Plains, NY, followed by Faith Inclusion Network  “Reimagining Faith and Disability Inclusion Post-Pandemic” 3/10-11 in Virginia Beach, VA. I am giving two virtual presentations and one in person:

Disability and Theology Track “Ancient Jewish Sources Informing Our Current Disabilities Inclusion Work” with Howard Blas

Congregational and Ministry Track “Filling Your Toolbox: Tips For a Successful Service” with Elizabeth Barnett “Keeping Our Communities Engaged Virtually During and After the Pandemic” with Howard Blas & Maya Albin

 Finally, a Scholar in Residence talk on “Jewish Special Education Today”  at Temple Israel in Norfolk, VA

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Originally published in Jewish Insider

In Short

Birthright Israel’s “Big Tent” approach allows participants from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including families with only one Jewish parent – and, though less-widely known, to people with disabilities and medical issues. 

Isaac Orhring of Danbury, Conn., still can’t stop talking about his unique Taglit-Birthright Israel trip three years ago. “Every Jew should have the right to go on Birthright Israel as a rite of passage, just like a bar mitzvah! Unfortunately, not everyone’s aware of every kind of disability. While some disabilities are obvious, others, including autism, are not. This should not stop young Jewish adults from visiting Israel for free on Birthright Israel.” he said.

Birthright – for all Jews

Taglit-Birthright Israel is well-known around the world for its free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 32. Since 1999, they have given over 750,000 people from 68 countries, every U.S. state and nearly 1,000 universities the opportunity to experience Israel and Judaism first hand.

Birthright Israel’s “Big-Tent” approach welcomes participants from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including families with only one Jewish parent – and, though less-widely known, to people with disabilities and medical issues. 

The program included people with disabilities and other support needs almost from its inception, with its first accessible trip in 2001. To date, over 2,000 participants have participated in more than 75 trips through various trip provider organizations.

A “Pinch Me” Moment

In 2019, Birthright Israel reviewed its policies on disabilities, developing a mission statement that clarifies its stance that all are welcome on the trips, regardless of disability. “Guided by our Jewish values, we aim to be inclusive of all individuals with disabilities, special requirements, limitations or challenges.”

Potential participants may be considered for participation on a typical Birthright Israel trip, or they may elect to participate in a specially designed trip with support for their needs. The itinerary often includes the usual “highlights” including the Dead Sea, Masada, the Kotel and camel riding. 

Trips support participants with various intellectual, developmental physical and sensory disabilities, medical issues and addictions. Recent trips include a range of themes: American Sign Language, Asperger’s syndrome, inflammatory bowel disorders, physical medical disabilities, twelve-step recovery and others.

Feedback to date has been positive.

Pamela Saeks, mother of an Aspergers trip participant said, “For years we searched for an organized trip to Israel that had the additional support necessary to enable Karly to participate.” Birthright’s willingness to include Karly was a “‘Pinch me, I must be dreaming’ moment,” she said.

Danny Wolf of Los Angeles participated on the Tikvah Ramah trip. He has cerebral palsy with limited mobility and verbal abilities. An aide funded by Birthright Israel assisted with feeding, self-care and communication needs. 

“It sounds corny but he has the same birthright as any other young adult who is Jewish to experience Israel independently without his parents,” Danny’s mother, Michelle Wolf, adds.

Pete, a participant on a Birthright Israel twelve-step recovery trip, reflected on his childhood Hebrew school experience, followed by “a series of events that paved the way for trouble” and subsequent addiction issues.

“Recovery has been my path to taking responsibility and to growing up,” he said. “Coming on Birthright Israel, I knew I would have a chance to have a second bar mitzvah. I brought my tallit and tefillin, which I received for my original bar mitzvah. This trip has given me the chance to have my real bar mitzvah and today I am ready to embrace the responsibility that it entails.”

Building a Special Trip

Most Aspergers trips include a visit to the Holon Children’s Museum “Invitation to Silence” exhibit. During the hour-long tour, participants are taught by deaf guides to use non-verbal communication. Participants gain a better understanding of the Israeli deaf community, and the deaf guides learn of the many strengths of people on the autism spectrum. 

Some trips include visiting army bases to meet soldiers with disabilities as part of the “Special in Uniform” program. The soldiers with disabilities share their experience in the army and national service and of their overall experience as an Israeli with autism. The encounter usually ends with a joint pizza party and the exchanging of contact information on social media.

As Israel’s borders continue to open even more to tourism and as the number of Birthright Israel trips increase, it is a good time to continue spreading the word about Birthright Israel’s commitment to sharing the Birthright Israel experience with every Jewish — with and without disabilities and medical needs.

The authors have been associated with and committed to Taglit-Birthright and accessible trips for many years. Elizabeth Sokolsky is the executive director of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Howard Blas is a social worker, special education teacher, Jewish educator and writer. He has been associated with the Tikvah (disabilities inclusion) program at Camp Ramah for 35 years. He currently serves as the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. He has led one Tikvah Birthright Israel trip for participants with intellectual and developmental disabilities through Amazing Israel and four Birthright Aspergers trips through Shorashim.

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Originally published in the Jerusalem Post

Aaron Kaufman has cerebral palsy and learning disabilities, but he is also gifted.

For Jewish communities around the world, February is known as JDAIM – Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. It is a month devoted to raising awareness and fostering the inclusion of people with disabilities.

For Aaron Kaufman, the senior manager of legislative affairs for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), every day of every month of his personal and professional life is devoted to disability awareness, acceptance, inclusion, advocacy and changing attitudes.

Kaufman can often be seen walking through Congress with the assistance of a walker, knocking on the doors of elected officials. He often uses his own disability and sense of humor to put members of the House and Senate at ease around the issue of disabilities.

Kaufman, 34, has been an advocate for people with disabilities for as long as he can remember. His expertise comes in part from his personal experience as a person with both visible and invisible disabilities. He was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects a person’s coordination and ability to walk and maintain balance and posture. He is also twice-exceptional (“2e”), meaning he is both gifted and has learning disabilities.

While Kaufman can boast many successes in his career, he is quick to point out that life is not always easy. “I don’t love my disability. Life can be frustrating,” recounts Kaufman. “My parents taught me to channel my frustration and fight for people with more significant challenges than me.”

 United States Library of Congress (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
United States Library of Congress (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

He didn’t have to look too far for those people. “My brother has cerebral palsy which is more severe and requires a greater deal of support and assistance.”

Kaufman has always been an ambassador and role model for disabilities. In fourth grade, Kaufman helped raise awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of people who are twice-exceptional; he took honors English and history classes while receiving special education support for math and science.

When he was a senior in high school, he succeeded in making it possible for people in his home county of Montgomery, Maryland to vote in accessible election stations close to their homes.

“I always believed that rather than complain, you should fight to make change,” he says.

Kaufman attended the University of Maryland and proudly received the highest GPA in American Studies. He then held jobs in Maryland’s General Assembly and taught at the prestigious Ivymount School, a school in Rockville for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. At Ivymount, he helped people with disabilities learn job skills and what he refers to as “workplace etiquette.”

HE THEN turned to more focused advocacy work. He spent two years at the ARC of Maryland, a disability rights organization, as a public policy specialist. He then started working at JFNA, which represents over 300 Jewish communities in the US and Canada. JFNA raises and distributes more than $2 billion annually through planned giving and endowment programs to support Jewish communities domestically and in Israel.

“In 2016, I jumped to federal advocacy. Thanks to Jerry Silverman [former president and CEO of JFNA] and Eric Fingerhut [current president and CEO of JFNA], JFNA has made disabilities a key component of their work,” reports Kaufman, who is proud of the commitment JFNA has made to people with disabilities.

“They believe in inclusion in their kishkes! JFNA is one of the leaders in the disability space. We are at the table in important coalitions [he rattles off a long list of coalitions where he represents JFNA]. We are one of the go-to people when it comes to disability policy.”

Kaufman is particularly proud of two major initiatives he has been involved with in recent years. “I played a significant role in blocking a piece of legislation called ADA Education and Reform Act, which would have gutted the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) by transferring compliance from a business to a person with a disability,” he says. “If I couldn’t get into a store, that new law would have given the business 180 days to fix it or make progress to fix it.”

Kaufman laughs as he offers another example. “If I had to go to a funeral at a funeral home and couldn’t get in the building, I wouldn’t have 30 days to wait!” He continues, “Businesses had 31 years to comply.” He is pleased that this piece of legislation was defeated in 2018.

More recently, Kaufman is proud of what he and colleagues at the Strategic Health Resource Center accomplished with the American Rescue Plan. “We fought hard and successfully for $12.67 b. for home- and community-based services for people with disabilities.”

Kaufman points out that the Jewish and general community are more familiar with other areas of JFNA’s work – such as support for Israel and securing grants for synagogue security – than with the organization’s disability efforts. 

“It is important to know that we have a robust domestic agenda – that we are putting b’tzelem Elohim (being created in the image of God) into practice every day.”

Kaufman credits the leadership at JFNA for recognizing his talents while also accommodating and supporting his weaknesses. “Everyone says they want to be inclusive. My bosses at JFNA embraced me for who I am.”

They also provided support and accommodations. In Kaufman’s case, they secured proofreading and editing assistance and purchased the Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software package. “We all have our idiosyncrasies,” Kaufman adds.

These supports have helped Kaufman succeed. He has worked for JFNA for six years, and his JFNA colleagues and other professionals are pleased with his work.

“I had the great honor of hiring Aaron and supervising him at the Jewish Federations of North America,” reports William C. Daroff, who for 14 years served as senior vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office. He currently serves as chief executive officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“From the moment I first met Aaron, I was immediately impressed by his winning attitude and fantastic personality. While working with him as we lobbied the White House and Congress, it was crystal clear that Aaron is a born advocate,” Daroff says. “He has the preternatural ability to read an audience and to discern how best to make the argument that will win them over.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, co-founder and recently retired president of RespectAbility, a national nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities, adds, “Aaron Kaufman is a deeply respected leader who brings authentic lived disability experience to policy tables. He is trusted and impactful.

“Jewish organizations need a lot more leaders with disabilities like Kaufman so that the one-in-five Jews with a disability have a voice and can contribute, just like anyone else,” she says.

Kaufman loves his work and notes, “We are at the table at important discussions.” He takes pride in how the work of JFNA is valued. “Sometimes, legislators send drafts to me to read and solicit JFNA’s feedback.”

Elana Broitman, senior vice president of public affairs at JFNA, adds, ”Inclusion is a core Jewish value and a priority of JFNA’s work, each and every day. By advancing policies that break down barriers to inclusion and empowering people with disabilities, we help build a society that is more equitable, just and accepting.”

FOR NOW, Kaufman and his colleagues are hard at work planning the 12th annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD, February 23-24), which brings together members of the disability community, advocates and community leaders to help break down barriers to opportunity and inclusion.

This year’s JDAD advocacy will focus on securing an additional $150 billion in a revised Build Back Better legislative package to expand Medicaid-funded home- and community-based services for low-income people with disabilities, reducing long waiting lists for care, and passing the ABLE Age Adjustment Act – tax-free savings accounts for disability-related expenses for individuals who become disabled before they reach age 26.

The ABLE Act would allow people who become disabled later in life (up to age 46) to establish these tax-free accounts and provide financial stability to 6 million more adults. JFNA estimates that 61 million American adults live with a disability.

Kaufman is pleased with so many aspects of his work but takes particular pride in teaching by simply being himself. “The thing I love about my job is busting myths and misconceptions on Capitol Hill,” he says. “My presence here educates people about not judging a book by its cover!”

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