Nancy Langer understands the challenges of integrating a special needs child into the Jewish community. Her 8-year-old son, Martin, has autism.
“It’s a struggle,” said the Mt. Lebanon resident, and member of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. “But one thing I have noticed: I think there has been a move lately to pay more attention to the issue of including people with special needs.”
There’s even an entire month devoted to the issue.
February marks Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and activities are being planned in the city and suburbs to raise community sensitivity toward those with special needs. Those events, combined with the ongoing efforts of various organizations throughout the area, can help to open doors to Jewish life for those with physical and mental challenges.
“Our ultimate goal,” said Terry Feinberg Steinberg, director of special education services for the Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL), “is that people won’t need us — that everyone is just included.”
Although some congregations have convened inclusion committees that work year round and have their own programs and activities, February has been designated as the month to bring attention to the still-unfilled needs of those with disabilities, according to Linda Marino, special needs coordinator for the Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
“We’re trying to get the word out this month,” Marino said. “We’re trying to get people to think about it.”
More can be done. For instance, Langer noted a congregation in California that has both a special education religious school program, as well as a simultaneous support group for parents.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “that type of program is not in Pittsburgh.”
Nevertheless, “some synagogues are doing wonderful things with special needs programming and support groups,” she said. “Everyone wants to help, but the problem is no one really knows how. There is lots of good will and kindness, but there is also a lack of understanding. And it’s hard to explain what you need because, sometimes, you don’t know yourself.”
Steinberg currently serves on the AJL’s special needs advisory committee, which is comprised of professionals and representatives from all the major Jewish organizations in the city, as well as some parents of special needs children. Its mission is to “help make Jewish education accessible to all Jewish people, and to promote inclusion and disability awareness.”
The committee works with congregations throughout the area to help adapt b’nai mitzva services, and to include special needs children into youth groups.
“We will work with every Jewish organization, trying to get them to open the doors,” Steinberg said.
Likewise, the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) offers year-round training workshops to any organization that works with people with disabilities, according to Marino.
“We have interactive activities to give people an idea of what it’s like to have autism, ADHD and learning challenges,” she said.
JF&CS also sponsors a “Growing Together” group to support family members of adults with special needs, and to help find housing and jobs as special needs children transition into adulthood. The group also helps families advocate for medical resources.
Marino will speak at Beth El during Jewish Disability Awareness Shabbat services Feb. 19. Her talk is entitled, “Are You Included?”
Other upcoming events promoting Jewish disability awareness include a community film screening of “Including Samuel: A Documentary,” by photojournalist Dan Habib, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Sunday, Feb. 13, at 1 p.m.; and Jewish Disability Awareness Shabbat, at Temple Ohav Shalom, Friday, Feb. 11, with Steinberg as a featured speaker.
While Pittsburgh has a lot of support in place for Jews with special needs, there is still work that needs to be done, according to Steinberg.
“I think we need more systematic attention to the issue,” she said. “Each agency and synagogue needs its own watchdog group to be working on this. The AJL could be a resource to these committees, but there needs to be much more grassroots.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)