Congregations mark Jewish Disability Awareness month with art, music, advocacy
PGH congregations focus on disability awareness

Congregations mark Jewish Disability Awareness month with art, music, advocacy

The 10-year-old national campaign, also known as JDAIM, is part of Inclusion Innovations, which helps faith organizations design inclusive environments.

Temple Sinai hosts a monthly Musical Shabbat, designed to be a sensory-experience with visual tefillah, sign language and fidget toys. (Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai)
Temple Sinai hosts a monthly Musical Shabbat, designed to be a sensory-experience with visual tefillah, sign language and fidget toys. (Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai)

An exhibit showcasing the work of 18 artists with disabilities opened last weekend at Temple Sinai as part of the congregation’s ongoing efforts of inclusion, and to mark Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion month.

A 10-year-old national campaign to encourage Jewish organizations to include those community members with disabilities, JDAIM is an initiative of Inclusion Innovations, which helps design strategies for faith communities to develop more inclusive environments.

Temple Sinai, which formed an inclusion committee about three years ago, will be running the art exhibit through Feb. 19. Some of the artists are Jewish and are living with disabilities such as visual impairment, hearing loss, autism or brain injury.

Artist Elaine Lesgold stands beside her art. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn Pierce)
Four of the artists showcased at the exhibit are participants at Jewish Residential Services’ Howard Levin Clubhouse, according to Alison Karabin, project manager for young adults in transition at JRS.

“Temple Sinai has been very welcoming to JRS participants and interested in disability inclusion beyond just the month of February,” Karabin noted.

“Temple Sinai is all about inclusion,” agreed Mara Kaplan, co-chair of Temple Sinai’s inclusion committee. “Inclusion of people of different abilities, interfaith families, different colors. We want to make sure everyone feels welcome when they come in and to know that inclusion is not just about a month, or a day or a program.”

Although Temple Sinai emphasizes inclusion all year, it has scheduled various activities to mark JDAIM in addition to the art show.

Last Saturday night, the congregation hosted a screening of “My Hero Brother,” an Israeli film that tells the story of a group of young people with Down syndrome who embark on a trek through the Himalayas, accompanied by their siblings. The film was followed by a Skype conversation with its producer, Enosh Cassel.

On Friday, Temple Sinai held its monthly Mostly Musical Shabbat, with sign language for several prayers and songs. The service, which features a band, is appropriate for families with children who have a difficult time sitting still.

“We encourage movement and noise,” Kaplan said, adding that the congregation also offers an alternative “quiet room” for people who find the setting “too overwhelming.” The service is then streamed into the quiet room.

The art show featured the work of 18 artists with disabilities and opened last weekend at Temple Sinai. (Photo courtesy of Mara Kaplan, co-chair of Temple Sinai’s Inclusion Committee)
The weekend of Feb. 16-18, Temple Sinai will host Lisa Friedman, an expert on Jewish disability inclusion, as its scholar-in-residence. Friedman will run a leadership session for staff and board members on Feb. 17 and speak with religious school parents on Feb. 18.

Temple Sinai recently was recognized as an Exemplar Congregation in Disability Inclusion by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Other Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh holding programs in February as part of JDAIM include Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, which will hold its annual Inclusion Shabbat on Saturday, Feb. 24. The service will include religious school students signing several of the prayers and participation by “parents of children with different abilities, as well as members themselves who have different abilities,” according to Joan Charlson, chair of Beth El’s inclusion committee. Dr. Gary Swanson, a child/adolescent psychologist, will speak on “Where do we go from here? My child has aged out of the system.”

“We believe in and practice inclusion at Beth El on many levels,” Charlson said, “which in the long run benefits both the recipients and those who are offering such help and acceptance.”

Kara Ruth Synder with her artwork. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn Pierce)
Beth Shalom’s youth group, USY, is also planning a special inclusion Shabbat but is scheduling it for March 24, according to Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s director of youth programming.

“The teens brought this to our attention,” Tait said. “They have a lot of ideas of ways to make our space more inclusive and to show that inclusion is a core value of Beth Shalom.”

Although the trip predated JDAIM by a week, Rabbi Barbara Symons, spiritual leader of Temple David in Monroeville, and two members of the congregation’s confirmation class visited Capitol Hill at the end of January to lobby Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Keith Rothfus for disability rights as part of the L’taken Social Justice Seminar of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

There are scores of additional and ongoing activities organized by local Jewish institutions throughout the year, recognizing that making Jewish life more inclusive for those with disabilities is a core value of Judaism. Organizations such as Friendship Circle, the Jewish Association on Aging, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and JRS are continually working on ways to incorporate those with disabilities into communal life.

“At Rosh Hashanah, we sent out a letter to various congregations and Jewish organizations highlighting things you can do for the high holidays to make them more inclusive,” cited JRS’ Karabin as an example. “And we will send a letter out this month to families and friends in the community to talk about what is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and how they can get involved and plan for next year.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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