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Fostering Inclusion

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM).

Originally founded as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month or JDAM in 2009 by the Jewish Special Education International Consortium, JDAIM is held to, among other things, raise awareness of how people with disabilities have been regarded by Jewish and secular society; urge Jews to welcome people with disabilities into their communities and personal lives; to include people with disabilities in all aspects of communal life; and to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

Here is a look at some of the inclusive special needs programming our local Jewish communities offer not just during February, but all year long.


JFCM & PJ Library partner with New England YACHAD for Inclusive Program

By Stacey Dresner

When PJ Library and Worcester JCC Cultural Arts present Jennifer Rosner and her book The Mitten String for an author’s event this month, it will not just promote the reading of Jewish books by young children and their families. It will also promote awareness and inclusion of people in the Jewish community with disabilities.

The Feb. 28 event, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. (JFCM) and New England YACHAD, is being held to commemorate National Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM).

This is the first time the Worcester PJ Library has held an event in conjunction with JDAIM.

“It was sort of a perfect opportunity when we partnered with the JCC Author Series to do a PJ Author Program and invited Jennifer Rosner to read The Mitten String,” said Mindy Hall, director of outreach and engagement for the Jewish Federation.

Rosner, who lives in Northampton, wrote The Mitten String, a children’s picture book with close ties to her own family’s story. It tells the story of young Ruthie Tober and her family of sheep farmers who reside in an Eastern European shtetl.

The Tobers host a houseguest Bayla, who is deaf, and her baby. One night Ruthie observes a blue string linking Bayla’s arm with her son’s. When the baby cries and moves his arm, Bayla wakes and takes the baby into her arms to comfort him.

Inspired, Ruthie knits a large mitten for Bayla, then a tiny mitten for the baby, connected by a red string.

snowboarding group

New England YACHAD and the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. co-sponsored a snowboarding activity in Shrewsbury last month.

Rosner based The Mitten String on family lore – her great-great-aunt Bayla Wertheim, who was deaf and who lived in Austria in the 1800s, was said to have tied a string to her infant’s wrist so that she would know when the baby needed her.

At the event, Rosner will read The Mitten String, along with an individual translating in American Sign Language. After the story, the children will participate in a mitten craft, with a donation of mittens earmarked for children at Friendly House, a facility in Worcester that serves Inner City families and children.

Also co-sponsoring this event is YACHAD New England, which is “dedicated to enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, ensuring their participation in the full spectrum of Jewish life.”

Yachad members participate in monthly activities. There are Yachad Chapters located throughout the U.S. and Canada. The closest one to Worcester is in Boston, but there is a push to start a chapter in the Worcester area.

Besides the PJ Library event, YACHAD also co-sponsored, along with the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., a snowtubing event, that was held in Shrewsbury last month.

“We talk so much about inclusion on so many levels these days whether it is about interfaith families, interracial families, LBGTQ,” Hall explained. “When it comes to disability awareness, we find a broad spectrum of circumstances that need to be addressed.  Some families are able to participate in mainstream activities at Jewish organizations as the disability may be more related to learning and have less impact on getting around in their day-to-day lives.  Some individuals may be less mobile but can partake in mainstream activities because of handicap accessibility whereas years ago this was not the case.  JFCM, like many other Federations, provides grants to synagogues to help defray costs needed for the additional assistance in helping a child with disabilities reach their bar or bat mitzvah successfully.”

Another example of stressing inclusion, Hall said, is through PJ Library.

“Here, a child can receive a book not based on their age but their reading level.  Let’s say a parent would love to see their child enjoy these Jewish-themed books but he or she is 5 years old chronologically and has a literacy level of a two-year-old. We can sign this child up to receive books on a two-year-old level and allow them to enjoy PJ Library books for years to come as they grow in their literacy.”

PJ Library and Worcester JCC’s Cultural Arts will present Jennifer Rosner, author of The Mitten String on Sunday, Feb. 28 from 3-4:30 p.m. For more information, contact Mindy Hall at mhall@jfcm.org



Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester commemorated Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month with an “Inclusion Shabbat” last weekend. Lauren Tuchman, a blind rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary spoke both Friday evening and Saturday morning, and several sessions were held including “Living with a Disability;” “How to be a Friend” for kids in grades K-7th grade; and “Living with Disabilities in College.”

“We began thinking about issues of disability and accessibility during High Holidays 2014 when we realized there were many congregants who were unable to accept honors due to inability to access the Bima,” said Howard Fixler of Beth Israel.

Beth Israel has been accepted as an USCJ Ruderman Inclusion Action Community and can now access resources to create a vision and an action plan for inclusion of individuals with visible and invisible disabilities.

“The importance of elevating the goal of inclusion to the forefront of our synagogue agenda became ever more apparent when the congregation began creating a vision for a major facility renovation,” Fixler explained. “Seeing the need for more general education and awareness about disability and inclusion in our Jewish community, with the encouragement and assistance of Rabbi Aviva Fellman, Beth Israel applied for funds from the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. for an Inclusion Shabbat, open to the entire community and to take place during Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.”

More than 100 people took part in the Shabbaton, which was co-sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel, Probus Club, Jewish Federation of Central Mass., and the Patashnik Family Fund.


Kehillah means “Community” in Springfield

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – On the evening of Dec. 30, the Springfield Jewish Community Center was hopping, as Kehillah, the JCC’s special needs department hosted its seventh annual inclusive New Year’s Eve party for individuals with disabilities in the Greater Springfield area.

The JCC was decorated with festive New Year’s Eve decorations and teens and young adults danced to lively music, at one point forming a conga line and making their way around the auditorium with big, happy smiles on their faces.

“Once everyone is out on the dance floor smiling together, the line that divides the guests with disabilities from the guests without becomes completely invisible,” said Kehillah Director Bethany Young.


Kehillah participant Avery Pratt, center, kibbutzing with Kerry Hussey, Kehillah programming manager, left, and Kehillah Special Needs Program Director Bethany Young, right.

Each year the celebration continues to grow. The event, for individuals 14 years and older, has included live bands, singers and DJ’s.  The auditorium turns into a dance studio complete with refreshments, hors d’oeuvre bar, and festive decorations. At the end of the evening, the party ends with a traditional New Year’s Eve countdown followed by “Auld Lang Syne.”

“I have said on numerous occasions that this program is one of my favorite nights of the year,” said JCC Executive Director Michael Paysnick. “The party brings together young adults and teens with special needs, their families and a group of incredible typical teens from our youth program.  Parents and caregivers get to relax enjoying each other’s company while the “kids” get to socialize and dance the night away. The night is a beautiful example of acceptance, appreciation, leadership and sheer joy.

Kehillah means “community” in Hebrew. And the Springfield JCC’s Kehillah department’s goal has to make sure its participants with special needs are included in the JCC community.

Kehillah offers programs for kids with special needs and inclusion programs and substantially separate programs for its participants from the ages of three to 40 plus through its Kids kehillah, Teen kehillah and Club kehillah (for ages 22 plus). Social programs include Best Buddies, Bowling Buddies, and Fitness Buddies. Nearly three years old, Fitness Buddies matches people in the community with disabilities with people without disabilities to work out together in the JCC’s fitness club twice a week. This fitness and friendship program has grown in leaps and bounds and now has 60 teens, both with and without disabilities, participating.

The JCC’s summer and vacation camps are also inclusive.


Having a ball at the Springfield JCC’s New Year’s party were, from left, Thomas Hulit, Samantha Cox, and Kiera Coon.

This month, during the winter break from Feb. 15-19, the Springfield JCC is offering a full week of inclusion camp for kids from preschool through 8th grade with special needs. In the past, only one or two kids with special needs have signed up for this February vacation program, but this year seven students signed up.

Just like “typical” students participating in the program, the kids in the inclusion camp will “go through the entire day participating as the typical campers do, and will be supported by inclusion counselors,” Young said.

In April, the Springfield JCC will host the 5th Annual Reel Abilities Boston Film Festival.

Springfield and Kehillah hosted the film festival for the first time last year with an exhibit of photos from the VELCRO® Brand100 Cameras Project, which provides people with disabilities modified cameras, “offering a new way to express and share their lives through a once inaccessible art form.”

Despite JDAM taking place in February, this year the ReelAbilities Film Festival in Springfield will be held in April, due to memories of last year’s cold, snowy winter.

“The J is so proud of our Kehillah special needs program,” Paysnick said. “As part of the J’s ongoing efforts to explore and assess the needs of the community it was evident that there was a dearth of opportunities for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities to socialize and engage in enriching and skill building activities.  Recognizing, appreciating and assisting individuals of all abilities is an important Jewish value expressed in numerous texts from the Torah to Proverbs to Pirke Avot and beyond. With the support of the Korn Family and the Grinspoon Foundation the JCC has helped to address an important need and actualize this value.  Community is the JCC’s middle name and Kehillah participants have really helped to enrich our J community.”



Thursday, April 7, 7 p.m.
JCC Goldstein Auditorium, Springfield

An inspiring program of four short films, handpicked by Reel Abilities, the largest film festival in the country dedicated to promoting awareness of – and appreciation for – the lives of people with disabilities.

Co-sponsored by Diane Troderman,
ReelAbilities: Boston Disabilities Film Festival and JCC Kehillah.


Hear This!

When 10 year-old Tristan wants his dad to become the trainer of his soccer team, the club won’t allow it because his father is deaf.

Tristan decides to prove them wrong.16 minutes/Dutch with subtitles


The Interviewer

Thomas Howell gets more than he’s bargained for in a job interview at a prestigious law firm: an insult about his tie, a rendition of Harry Potter and the chance to change.13 minutes


Coaching Colburn

James Colburn was born with Fragile X Syndrome. At 26, he is a child at heart who finds joy in the smallest things and uses his gift of comedic timing to inspire those around him.15 minutes


Finding Miracles

Elaine and Tom Henshon share the inspirational story of their son Brian, who was born with Down Syndrome and has become an accomplished piano player and swimmer. 9 minutes

L’chaim! Israeli winery is a winner
Celebrating Chanukah in Springfield
A bat mitzvah surprise, on ice

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