With 25,000 members of the broad Jewish community across the United States and Canada engaged within more than 100 programs in honor of North American Inclusion Month (NAIM), the initiative to springboard and inspire awareness and sensitivity for individuals with special needs has made an impact.
Acknowledged five years ago by the United States Congress, NAIM is an initiative of Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD), the Orthodox Union’s agency dedicated to enhancing the opportunities of individuals with disabilities; promoting inclusion and independence through a full array of integrated activities; and ensuring their full participation in mainstream Jewish life.
“NAIM gave us the opportunity to reach out to new communities, to share our mission with Jews in new areas for the work we do,” said Batya Jacob, NAIM national coordinator and Yachad’s director of educational support services. “If programming was only coordinated in communities with Yachad chapters, it would defeat the purpose of the initiative.”
Yachad chapters across the country reached out to regional cities without a Yachad presence, establishing honorary “satellite chapters” in Denver, Jacksonville, Richmond and Savannah.
Bringing their message to Savannah, members of South Florida Yachad took leading roles during services such as opening the Aron, receiving an Aliyah, wrapping the Torah, and delivering divrei Torah.
Wrote Rabbi Eli Lob, director of Savannah NCSY and JSU and director of youth programming at Bnai Brith Jacob Synagogue in Savannah:
“People pay hundreds of dollars to experience the ‘magical feeling’ of Disney World. We want to enter a surreal environment where we can transcend nature and dreams come true. Forget about Disney World! You could feel the “magic” permeating the entire Shabbaton! However, this was not some fleeting magical moment. This is the real thing! The fact that so many teens and adults who are outwardly different can bond together to form one powerful unit. A force that is unstoppable. A force called Am Yisrael. The feeling of friendship and achdus was palpable throughout the weekend. The ruach that was created is one that lasts a lot longer than the weekend. It is a ruach that is a lot stronger than any wind. It is a ruach that declares that when Jews from all over and from all backgrounds bond together, there is no force in the world that can stop them!”
Teaming up with the OU Karasick Department of Community Engagement and Synagogue Services, Shabbat B’Yachad—Parshat Yitro—focused to broaden Yachad’s horizons through inclusion in the synagogue.
“As a convert, Yitro was accepted and included in the Jewish community, exemplifying how being welcoming to others is a Jewish ideal,” explained Batya Jacob. “Commentators also explain that the Ten Commandments were given to multiple generations, showing that the entire Jewish nation was included in hearing God’s message.”
More than 20,000 inclusion cards containing recommendations for creating an inclusive synagogue atmosphere were mailed to OU member synagogues across the continent.
Each synagogue also received a PowerPoint Presentation of Megillat Esther in time for Purim. More than 600 were sent out across the globe—from Afghanistan to South Africa, Austria to London, Israel and Turkey. The Presentations were hosted on college campuses by the educators of the OU’s Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC).
A nation-wide program, “Cooking B’Yachad,” encouraged the mindset of inclusion throughout the year with each chapter hosting cooking events such as pizza making, cupcake decorating, and chili cook-offs.
“The mission of NAIM is to celebrate every individual’s abilities and to create an inclusive Jewish community for all of its members, regardless of any differences or challenges they may have,” stated Batya Jacob, Yachad director of educational support services.
“Each year brings new successes as communities that previously had no contact with us have been sensitized to the need to actively welcome and include individuals with disabilities in the community. Yet our mission continues as there are still more communities that have not seriously grappled with inclusion and virtually every community could do more.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.