Written by: Ellen and Sam Weinstock for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) when Jewish organizations join to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with developmental disabilities. In recognition of JDAIM, we want to spotlight how JSDD’s WAE Center fulfills this mission and has opened many doors for our son, Steven.
Think back to the early days of the COVID pandemic when you were socially isolated. These were tough times, and they give one an opportunity to understand what life is like for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. People with special needs are often physically and socially isolated from their communities.
We had long been searching for a day program that could see Steven’s abilities, encourage his self-worth, and provide community and friendship. JSDD’s WAE Center was the answer to our quest. For the past 18 years the WAE center has made an immeasurable difference in Steven’s life by providing him many opportunities for inclusion, acceptance, community, and joy.
What follows is a summary of a few of the ways that our son, Steven, has experienced: the spark of artistic growth, the joy and comfort of community, a growing Judaic connection, and the powerful influence of a program encouraging personal growth on every level.
Doorway to Steven Becoming an Artist
Being non-verbal, we never knew that Steven wanted to explore art. The WAE Center staff found the artistic spark within him. They nurtured it, they encouraged it, and they applauded it until it blossomed into an activity which provides him enormous pleasure. He loves working one – to – one on his paintings with Esther and Lisette and is very proud of his artwork. He views these two women not only as his art facilitators but as his friends. His work in the art studio has given him a sense of belonging and a voice with which to express himself.
Doorway to Expanding Steven’s Social Network
The WAE Center has given Steven a place and an opportunity to socialize with friends. This community brings him so much happiness. You can see it when he greets his WAE Center friends with his radiant smile and gives them an energetic high five. The significance of choosing one’s own friends and exploring interests together can’t be overstated. Even more than camaraderie, this is about choice and connection. Choice is empowering and not often available to people, such as our son.
Doorway to Experiencing Bikkur Holim
The WAE Center has practiced the culture of providing infinite possibilities of inclusion in the general community, beyond the physical boundaries of the WAE Center. A few years ago, Steven was confined to bed rest at a sub-acute care facility. Just like any other individual in this situation, he felt isolated and missed his WAE Center friends. As Halloween approached, I reached out to the staff at the WAE center for help. On Halloween, three of Steven’s friends and a staff member came in their costumes to visit with him! He was thrilled. In Judaism, bikkur holim refers to the mitzvah (good deed) of visiting and providing aid to the sick. The Halloween visit and the other visits that followed, meant the world to Steven, and brought so much joy to his days while he was recovering.Doorway to Jewish Learning
Parents who are raising a child with disabilities often must prioritize their response to the individualized needs of their child. In our hierarchy, religious education was lower down on our list. JSDD’s Judaic Coordinator, Hagit Oren invited Steven to attend virtual Shabbat services that she facilitates. While Steven lives in a group home that is managed by another provider agency, he was welcomed into this group via Zoom. Every Friday we bring Steven a challah and he joins his new JSDD friends as they welcome the Sabbath. Thanks to Hagit Oren and JSDD, Steven has opened another door of inclusion affording him membership in the Jewish community.
Doorway to Virtual Learning
The COVID pandemic inflicted great emotional hardships on the special needs population. Restricted to remaining in their group homes, they were isolated from family and friends. Without “in person” learning they were denied stimulation and their artistic creativity was stifled. Once again, JSDD WAE Center responded to the needs of this population in a new and powerful way by creating a program for them to learn, socialize and create. WAE to Connect has been a lifeline for Steven. The virtual classes have given him opportunities to hang out with other members of the WAE Center on the Zoom platform. Attending remote classes has provided purpose, learning, and filled Steven’s life with joy. WAE to Connect is a powerful answer to the question of how to include and create community, for our son Steven.
Our hope is that every person, every congregation, and every organization use the Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month message as a source of inspiration and motivation to be practiced all year. The doorways to full inclusion are easily opened when everyone works together to welcome people with disabilities into all aspects of Jewish and community life.