Dogs have long been man’s best friend. They’re snuggly, warm, and generally have a good sense of what their owners want. And some dogs give more than puppy love. Service dogs are trained to help people with disabilities such as visual or hearing impairments, seizure disorders, mobility issues, and diabetes. The dogs can also come with some uniquely Jewish challenges. Benyamin Fleischman of Bethesda, Md., who purchased a service dog after suffering from an accident that left him with limited mobility, cannot feed his dog meat and milk together. Some rabbis have ruled that dogs are muktza (forbidden to be touched) on Shabbat. But Fleischman says that in the case of service dogs, rabbis tend to be more lenient. This was the case for Haya Simkin of Kfar Saba, Israel, who bought a poodle guide dog for the blind. She asked her rabbi if there would be any issues having such a pet, and he said no. She brings the dog, Pammy, with her to synagogue. The dog knows when to stand up or lie down at the right times during prayer services.
Masha Roth is 46, but much younger at heart. She lives on a kibbutz in Israel. Her relatives say she is smart, tenacious, and persistent. She also has Down syndrome. “Growing up with Masha was interesting,” says her brother, Ram Roth of New York. “She always needed someone to watch her, to play with her.” But Ram says he learned patience and how to be a good teacher from his sister, who is five years younger. Growing up, she would revel in the little things and find playmates in the youngest generations of the family. And she always loved birthdays. So three years ago, with Masha’s passion for her birthday as strong as ever, Ram and his nephew Tamir Weisberg decided to get her some birthday letters. What followed was an overflowing of random acts of kindness.
The latest blooming in Israel’s Negev Desert is particularly relevant in February, which is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. At Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran—a rehabilitation village in southern Israel that serves people with severe disabilities—residents benefit from green therapy, which uses gardening and nature to help give the special needs community a higher quality of life.
The warehouse where Chen Orpaz works could be part of any technology company in Israel. Dressed in his blue fleece hoodie and matching blue knitted yarmulke, he looks like any other 23-year-old, save for his constant smile as he glides from aisle to aisle, choosing tiny parts from colored bins for customer orders. Chen, 23, looks happier than most warehouse workers as he fills orders with quiet determination; perhaps because he’s proud to be working productively when so many people doubted he ever could. For most Israelis, serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is the key to networking, a career, and a life. But historically, the army has slammed its door in the face of young men like Chen, who has an intellectual disability. Thousands of young people with disabilities were turned away until IDF Lt. Col (Ret.) Ariel Almog in 2008 founded “Special in Uniform” with the Israeli Ministry of Social Services. Special in Uniform, a partner of Jewish National Fund since 2014, makes it possible for Israeli citizens with various disabilities to serve as fully functioning soldiers in regular units.
At Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, a rehabilitation village and partner organization of Jewish National Fund that serves people with severe disabilities in southern Israel, an unlikely friendship has formed. Peter Von Brockhausen, a 57-year-old Netherlands native who recently discovered his family’s Jewish roots, and Elad Sair, 30, have built a strong relationship—which is difficult given that Von Brockhausen knows only basic Hebrew and Sair has special needs. Sair is blind, and his outbursts of anger had kept him from utilizing the wide range of services offered at the village. When Von Brockhausen came to Aleh Negev to volunteer in 2015, his calm nature seemed a perfect pairing with Sair. “It’s been very slow work,” Von Brockhausen said. “He was blind and afraid. He needed to trust me 200 percent. It was on me to build this connection.”
Are we doing enough for people with disabilities, who want more control over their own lives and desire greater engagement as members of society? After all, inclusion and independent living align directly with our Jewish values. In order to develop a strong and sustainable people, it is essential that community-based programs have an inclusive mindset. In Israel, we still have a way to go, write Jay Ruderman and Avital Sandler-Loeff of the Ruderman Family Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, respectively.
Each February, we mark Jewish Disability Awareness Month. This year, the decision was made to add “inclusion” to the equation, and it is now called Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. But what does inclusion mean? By definition, it means “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” If we apply this to the context of people with disabilities in the Jewish community, the definition still leaves space for wide interpretation for implementation. As executive director of the Gateways: Access to Jewish Education organization, Arlene Remz grapples with this challenge on a daily basis. For Jewish students with special learning needs, inclusion needs to be about choice, writes Remz.