February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month

Held every February, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) is a unified effort among Jewish organizations and communities worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities. There are several opportunities for members of the Jewish community and beyond to learn more about current issues facing people with disabilities, barriers to opportunities, and best practices for disability inclusion in faith communities and daily life.  

Throughout the month, The Branch will hold events to highlight the importance of inclusion when it comes to those living with a mental health diagnosis. Event Attendees will hear first hand from people in our community and beyond.

“As a local leader in services for people with disabilities, The Branch is looking forward to exploring the ways having a mental health diagnosis impacts the lives of people in our community. Our goal is to ensure that disability inclusion is the norm in  Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, not only in February, but throughout the year”, said Nancy Gale, Executive Director of The Branch.

Click here to learn more about JDAIM.

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Temple Sinai to Hold JDAIM Event

Temple Sinai is teaming up with Positively Painting Program, an organization started by parents who lost their very creative daughter to suicide. Their mission is encouraging and facilitating positive mental health with beautiful art. They aim to increase the conversations, decrease the stigma, and provide opportunities for everyone in the community to create art that is a part of that effort.

During Temple Sinai’s program, attendees will have lunch followed by painting on canvases. From there, the canvases will be taken to the Positively Painting Program where they will be overlaid with messages of inspiration and hope. The art will become an installation at Temple Sinai. The goal of the program is to help destigmatize mental health issues and talk about the importance of mental health.

People of all artistic abilities are welcome to the event which will be held Sunday, February 19, 2023 at Noon. Click here to learn more and register.

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The Intersection of Race, Disability and Religion: A First-Person Experience

Join The Branch and webinar speaker Asha Chai-Chang as she talks about the growing community of Jews who identify as Jews of Color. Born in Long Island as the Jamaican/Cuban/Chinese/Jewish daughter to immigrant parents, Asha is an Actuary by Trade turned Award-Winning Director/Writer with invisible disabilities.

Asha will create an open dialogue about being a person of color with multiple disabilities and speak about the intersectionality of being a Jew of Color with disabilities. She will also explore ways Jewish communities can increase visibility and create safe spaces for Jews of Color. Attendees will learn informative statistics and factual findings, have an opportunity to connect within the webinar, and walk away with new tools and best practices. 

Asha Chai-Chang is the Co-Founder for Slamdance Unstoppable, a program for disabled talent and filmmakers that educates through films, panels, and partnerships on ways we can address DEIA issues concerning participants, audience members, and submitters. Additionally, Asha is a Production Accessibility Coordinator, which often highlights the importance of disability accommodation requests in the entertainment industry. Her work in this industry informs practices that can be applied to organizations, businesses and communities.

Webinar date TBD. To register or for more information, contact clasky@thebranchpgh.org

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Interview with the Co-Founder of JDAIM: Shelly Christensen

Shelly Christensen, MA, FAAIDD, is the Senior Director of Faith Inclusion at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community.

Shelly is a pioneer and leader in the faith community disability and mental health inclusion movement. Her passion for this work is anchored by her experiences as the parent of a child with autism. Long before she was an emerging leader in the field, Shelly was trained as a parent advocate, unwaveringly holding the school accountable for her son’s rights to a free appropriate public education as mandated in the IDEA.  

After publication of her book, The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, she was in demand as a keynote speaker, trainer, and consultant for other communities. She founded Inclusion Innovations to expand her capacity to work with diverse faith-based organizations.

In 2009, Shelly co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Through Shelly’s leadership, JDAIM is recognized around the world by local, national and international organizations.

Click here to see an interview about Shelly, how JDAIM came to be, and how you can get involved.

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Temple Sinai task force promotes inclusion

Thirty-one years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in order prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The law addressed the exclusion of people with disabilities in many areas – employment, transportation, etc. – but it did not address inclusion, particularly in faith communities. There is still much work to be done before all members of our society can actively participate in the religious community of their choice.

Awareness of the need for disability inclusion within Judaism has grown in the past two decades.  National events like Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, which has existed since 2009, and the creation of national organizations like RespectAbility, which works to provide inclusion resources to religious communities and many other walks of life, have helped to highlight the issues.

Within the Pittsburgh Jewish community, Temple Sinai was the first congregation to form a committee that focuses on disability inclusion. Lisa Lederer, a member of Temple Sinai and disability advocate, approached Mara Kaplan, another congregation member and disability advocate who has a son with a disability, and asked her to share the responsibility of creating and co-chairing a disability task force. Mara recalls Lisa asking, “Temple Sinai is really committed to social justice, but if we don’t clean up our own house how can we be really going out and doing work beyond our synagogue walls?” Thus, in 2015, the disAbilities Task Force at Temple Sinai was established, to help create an accessible and inclusive environment for all members of the Temple Sinai community.

Since its establishment, the disAbilities Task Force has addressed both accessibility and inclusion at Temple Sinai, which Kaplan notes, are not the same thing. “Accessibility means you can get in the building, you can get up on the bema, and you can open the doors to the bathroom. That is necessary to reach inclusion, but just doing those things doesn’t get you to inclusion. People are starting to call their inclusion committees, non-segregation committees. That’s what we’re really doing here. We’re not segregating anybody out of Judaism because we couldn’t give them what they needed to be able to participate in the place where they wanted to participate.”

The Task Force started by conducting a physical and social audit of the building and programming to identify areas changes could be made to increase accessibility. They found that there was already a ramp to reach the bema, there were elevators in the building, an entrance without stairs, and an accessible bathroom. However, the garden that holds the Sukkah during the festival of Sukkot could only be reached using stairs, potentially preventing some congregants from participating. The disAbilities Task Force raised funds for a garden ramp and temporarily moved the Sukkah to an accessible location during the construction.

After beginning to address accessibility, the Task Force created a strategic plan to promote inclusion. Kaplan said that one of the most important components of the plan was “getting people comfortable with seeing people with disabilities [and being] around people with mental health issues.” To further that goal, the disAbilities Task Force started organizing events that would facilitate conversation and help people with disabilities tell their stories. One program taught people with mental health diagnoses to perform standup comedy routines for a community-wide event. Another program focused on question and answer sessions via Zoom, between people with and without mental health diagnoses. “Stories are a very strong way to change people’s opinions,” Kaplan remarked.


More recently, the disAbilities Task Force helped Temple Sinai overcome challenges that occurred due to the pandemic. As public gatherings turned to virtual platforms, the work of the Task Force was essential.  It ensured that everyone who wanted to participate had the technological ability and equipment to attend virtual services – especially during the High Holidays. The Task Force sent a survey to members of the congregation and then dispatched volunteers to help congregants who wanted assistance to prepare for online holidays services. The Task Force offered online sensory support, with interactive activities and an hour long High Holiday playlist to provide a break from Zoom while remaining in the holiday mindset.

As a result of the pandemic, the Task Force has had the opportunity to focus on the ways technology can be used to promote inclusion. “We are going to look at our entire building where programming and services take place to determine what kind of technology, if any, is needed,” said Kaplan. This could include evaluating the Synagogue’s internet connection, updating the technology that is compatible with telecoil hearing aids, and continuing to use zoom as a resource for congregants who cannot attend services in-person. For those who do attend High Holidays services in-person, the Task Force has sign language interpreters for certain services, magnifying glasses, large print prayer books, fidget toys, valet parking, and a quiet room set aside to take breaks from services.

While it is encouraging to see the work Temple Sinai has done to promote inclusion and accessibility within the Jewish community, there is more work that needs to be done, both inside and outside of synagogue walls. “Be aware as a community member. Make [people with disabilities] feel like they are a part of you instead of apart from you,” said Kaplan. She recommends community members promote inclusion by doing small things such as sharing rides, extending invitations to religious celebrations, providing food for people with dietary restrictions, and most importantly, listening to other people’s needs.

Kaplan has experienced the benefit of strengthened inclusion at Temple Sinai first-hand. “I have tons of people always coming up to me saying, ‘We love when you bring Samuel to services. He just loves the music and it’s so fun to see him engaged,’” said Kaplan referring to her son who has a disability. “Well, that’s come a long way from a time where people weren’t so sure Samuel should be in the service because he made noises, and we’d have to take him out. Now, there’s an expectation that he should be there and if he makes noises, so what?”

To learn more about Temple Sinai’s Inclusion Task Force, contact Mara Kaplan at maratkaplan@gmail.com or Lisa Lederer at lisaglederer@gmail.com.  If you and/or your congregation are looking for ways to be more inclusive during the High Holidays, click here to view RespectAbilities High Holiday Inclusion Tool Kit.

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High Holidays disability inclusion resource kit

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How can you, your family and community be inclusive during the upcoming High Holidays? Click the links below to see various disability inclusion resources from reputable sources.

High Holiday Specific Inclusion

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