No one should feel unwelcome in the Jewish community. That’s why the Jewish Abilities Alliance of Greater Atlanta (JAA) was established to “provide training, resources, and support to help Jewish organizations welcome and serve people with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life.”
JAA Manager Annie Garrett says the organization “began in 2012, as a Disability Task Force formed to assess the needs of Jewish Atlanta’s disability community.” In 2015, the Task Force “evolved into the Jewish Abilities Alliance, which has grown to become the centralized resource for disability inclusion in Jewish Atlanta.”
According to a 2020 disability inclusion study by the organization Matan, there’s still a lot of work to be done. So, this year, the Jewish community is making inclusion a priority. According to Michelle Simon, the JAA has been chosen as “the newest Targeted Philanthropy for the Federation’s 2022 Community Campaign, enabling donors to direct gifts to support disabilities. We are poised to make Atlanta the MOST welcoming and inclusive community.”
Simon knows from firsthand experience. “After our middle son Kyle was born, we quickly discovered that he had differing abilities,” she said. “They were not always visible to others, but it was clear to us that Kyle had unique challenges. We were fortunate to intervene early and provide him with the supportive services he needed along the way. Today, at age 25, Kyle has a great job where he is highly valued by his co-workers and a robust social life. Though he lives at home, he is quite independent and is the heart of our family.”
JAA Co-chair Jan Jay has seen the benefits of community inclusion with her son Jared. “Our family cannot express the pride we feel when Jared uses his letter board to spell out his thoughts as he reflects on his Jewish heritage,” Jay says. “He has the desire to study Torah and frequently compares the struggles that he has as a non-speaking individual living with autism with those of Jews in history. We are so grateful for the opportunity Jared has had to learn about our tradition and identify with it so closely. This would not have been possible had the Jewish community not been dedicated to helping those of all abilities.”
At a recent Zoom event, advocate Elaine Blumenthal, said, “Our goal is to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities to engage Jewishly throughout our Atlanta Jewish community. As Jews, we have a responsibility to take care of our loved ones and our neighbors’ loved ones. In 1968, I came to Atlanta to teach in one of the first public school classes in America for children with autism.
Until the 1980s, many children with autism were institutionalized for all their lives. There was no Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect those with a disability. In 1970, I delivered my first child, who, at age five, would be diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, and by age eight would be in a wheelchair. We felt that if he ever asked, ‘why me, G-d?’ that the answer should be Jewish. In those years, only one Jewish day school was handicap-accessible. Today, services for our special needs community are much more available. It is nice to know that things get better in the Jewish community because we all participate.”
JAA advocate Gail Heyman echoed that sentiment. “I’ve been involved with the JAA task force and it’s very exciting, since so much has been done,” she said. “The bottom line is we want to get the information out there and awareness is key. We are a caring Jewish community and it’s about providing opportunities for those who need a little bit more support. As I’ve always said about my son Scott, and I would think this is probably true for anyone who has a disability, they have the same thoughts, feelings and dreams that we all have. So just remember, if that person has difficulty with walking, expressing themselves or the ability to include themselves in the typical setting, we should be mindful to do our part to create an environment where they can succeed.”
Rachael Rosenberg said that she and her husband, Jack, “are able to sleep well at night, knowing our Atlanta Jewish community is working to care for our daughter, Marla, and the thousands of Jewish community members with differing abilities, who need assistance.”
For additional information about JAA and upcoming information sessions, visit www.atlanta.jewishabilities.org.