Amy Hummell

February has a variety of noteworthy qualities: the shortest month, Black History Month, Valentine’s Day, Arizona Statehood and, as of 2009, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month.

It all started when two members of the Jewish Special Education International Consortium presented the idea of selecting a specific month for all communities to raise awareness and share resources on the topic of disability. The Council for Jews with Special Needs (CJSN), founded in 1985 by Becca Hornstein and Joyce Berk-Lippincott, was one agency already leading the way.

Hornstein served on the Consortium and helped prove the need for worldwide inclusion and understanding. Since it was working in Arizona, which at that time was the Wild West, she knew it could work everywhere. The goal was for Jews of all ages with any disability to be able to participate in the mainstream of Jewish life.

When families of individuals with special needs asked for services, CJSN responded. In 1989, it helped Jewish children adapt to and enjoy Jewish Camp. In 2001, the agency opened its first residential home for individuals with disabilities. In 2007, Simchat Shabbat was created in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel, and in 2008 came a special needs Shabbat in a Box. The year 2010 was the first b’nai mitzvah for adults, and in 2014, education professionals assisted with testing for students in Jewish day schools who required aides as an accommodation.

All these community services brought about the desire to change the name of the agency to reflect the mission more widely. In 2017, Gesher Disability Resources was unveiled along with Gesher Model Seder and a special needs community dance for adults.

The programs and services are rooted within the overarching category of inclusion. Being Jews who believe in tikkun olam as well as mitzvot and tzedakah, inclusion, awareness and acceptance practically roll off the tongue. But what about action?

Taking action is also a cornerstone of Jewish life where we stand up for what we believe in and watch out for our neighbors and friends. We all know the power of friendship, and we can always use more friends.

The No. 1 request Gesher receives is for help finding a friend who can assist with a child's participation in a program. For that, the Friendship Circle is wonderful, but it could and should be so much larger. Gesher social group takes place on Sunday afternoons with members and staff. While an occasional guest presenter joins in on the fun, the volunteers are the

missing piece.

It is not for a lack of asking; it is simply our lives are so busy. We understand — that’s life.

Now we are asking for you to change your life — just a little. The pandemic has taught us about hiking, puzzles, cooking and binge-watching shows. We spend hours with our “friends” from “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Fauda,” “The Crown” and so many more. What about spending one hour a week or even one hour a month making connections with real people and taking action to make new friends?

For those of you asking how to do that and what to say to someone with a disability, we can talk you through it, make suggestions and even offer a training session. Or just do the simplest thing and look to your heart. What do you like to do? How do you want to be treated? Then go back to the words awareness, acceptance and inclusion.

You will easily see how action not only fits in but is a natural progression to a month of celebrating disability.

The rewards outweigh any doubts you may have, especially when Jesse teaches you about space or Robbie tells about his adventures and asks if you

are jealous.

Gesher members are smart, kind and funny. Gesher activities are interesting and entertaining, but we are not the only group with events and activities planned for the special needs community. Look to Jewish National Fund’s Special in Uniform program, JFNA’s disability advocacy, Matan, RespectAbility,

Jewish Family & Children’s Services and at your synagogue’s religious

school for ways to take action and be a friend.

For many individuals and their families, managing a disability is their way of life. One hour a week or even one hour a month takes awareness, acceptance and inclusion to the next level. #JDAIM21 and beyond! JN

Amy Hummell is the executive director of Gesher Disability Resources.

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