Tikvah Juni, a Brooklyn native, is a member and public speaker for Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. Yachad’s mission is to help provide inclusive activities, including Shabbatonim, for those with mental and physical disabilities within the Jewish community. In Tikvah’s own words, “I love the way I feel welcomed and a part of the group during Yachad programs. I live from Shabbaton to Shabbaton and my self-esteem grows with each one.”
Last month, Houston Yachad celebrated North American Inclusion Month (or NAIM) by inviting Tikvah to speak to the Houston Jewish Community. She spoke about what it was like growing up with Down’s Syndrome, relating, “It’s like having a warning sign flashing over your head at all times. It’s like having ‘stare now’ taped to your face and never being able to take it down.” Her speech was heart-wrenching at times, but to Tikvah, it was all about delivering a very important message to Houston’s Jewish youth.
“Here is the truth: People with disabilities are just like anybody else. There is no reason to be afraid. Get to know us and you will see. I turn to each of you, asking you to make your community a place where kids reach out to their neighbors with disabilities and make them feel included.”
Part of Tikvah’s visit included introducing Houston Yachad’s initiative to end the use of the “r” word among Houston’s Jewish youth. Inspired by the “Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign,” Houston Yachad and Tikvah encouraged hundreds of local youth to pledge their support of the campaign and discontinue their use of the hurtful word “retarded “in their everyday speech. In the course of just five days, Tikvah spoke to 10 organizations throughout the community including Ahavat Yisrael, Brith Shalom Religious School, The Emery/Weiner School, the Kesher Program ,The Miriam Browning Center for Jewish Learning at Congregation Beth Israel, the Robert M. Beren Academy, Torah Girls Academy, Torah Day School, Sephardic Gan Torat Emet, and Young Israel of Houston. In total, Tikvah’s message reached over 1000 people before she flew home to New York.
Parents, teachers, and students were inspired by Tikvah’s message. Jane Alexander commented, “Tikvah shared the pain and hurt when others didn’t include her in social situations and my son listened to feelings he couldn’t express himself.” Tal Behor, a seventh grader at Emery/Weiner said, “I was about to say that word [retarded] to my friend , but then I remembered what Tikvah told us and I stopped myself.” A sixth grade student at Brith Shalom told Tikvah, “ You really live up to your name, Tikvah , Hope.”
Dr. Shulamis Pollak, Tikvah’s sister and Director of Guidance at Beren Academy remarked, on the lasting impact of Tikvah’s words,“Tikvah’s honesty in telling her life story and message of inclusion gave the Houston Jewish community a vision to work towards. Her heartfelt words will echo in our shuls and schools for a long time to come.”
Houston Yachad will offer more events for high school teens and their peers with special needs before the end of the school year. For more information about Houston Yachad events, contact Gina Fass at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the The Jewish Herald Voice.