At the beginning of Sept., as part of its efforts to improve the experience of people with disabilities, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington announced it was giving out $100,000 in grants to 16 local organizations for the purpose of expanding their disability inclusivity capabilities.
While this is not the first time the Federation has provided disability assistance to local organizations, this year marks the first time the Federation has been able to award grants at this level, as they previously didn’t have the resources to commit to such a large-scale program, according to Federation CEO Gil Preuss.
Preuss said promoting inclusivity is a major part of the Federation’s mission, kickstarted in large part by previous CEO Steve Rakitt.
“It started before I got here, really by my predecessor, Steve Rakitt, who felt that it was an important part of the role of Federation to make sure that we have an inclusive community for all, and he really focused. One of the areas of focus there was on disability,” Preuss said.
With the new resources allotted toward these grants, the Federation had representatives go out into the community and encourage organizations to apply for the funding.
The Federation then brought in a company to analyze the areas of greatest need in the community, with a focus on providing aid to young people with disabilities. After assessing the current situation, the Federation chose its recipients and the amount to distribute.
And with so much varying need across the D.C. area, the recipients all have very different plans for how to best use the money.
the Den Collective, a group that labels itself “radically inclusive,” is taking the approach of seeking its members’ opinions before making any decisions. The organization wants to be sure that whatever measures it institutes will be wanted and helpful to the most people.
“We’ll discover what kind of programming people are looking for, whether it’s … a purposefully disability inclusion type learning with the whole community, or it’s just a matter of making sure there’s accommodations to … the extent that they are needed for all of our programming,” the Den Collective’s Rabbi Jenna Turow said.
The grant money and ensuing program will help further the Den Collective’s efforts to provide spaces where people feel welcomed and celebrated for their differences. The organization wants people to be comfortable being transparent about what they need and be able to provide it, according to Rabbi Turow.
Capital Camps, an organization that runs Jewish summer camps in the D.C. area, has specific plans for the funding they were awarded. The group is using its grant money to hire a specialist that can provide extra assistance to its staff members with disabilities.
Capital Camps has long had a focus on disability inclusivity, according to Camp Director Lisa Handelman. She said having this grant money will allow the camp to add “strength on strength” when it comes to providing for its staff and campers with disabilities.
“It’s actually a great place for young adults to work — at summer camps — because they learn a lot of real-life skills,” Capital Camps Development Director Samantha Sisisky said. “This was a chance for our young adults with disabilities to learn later in related life skills in a meaningful way, in this community that they’ve called home as a camper that they can now apply to work and [the grant] elevated that program.”
The hope is that all the inclusive programs the camp runs will allow people with disabilities to become more integrated into the camp and have personal growth and Jewish identity building past their camper or staff years.
But beyond programs and direct outreach, the funding will allow groups across the area to provide small things that can really enhance the experience of disabled people in Jewish spaces.
Preuss said that previous funding has gone to groups needing a sign language interpreter for an event or help with a Passover Seder.
Despite being small additions to the overall event, these enhancements allow for a person to participate and feel part of the community. That’s why disability inclusion is something that the Federation and other local organizations are focusing on.
“This has to be a continued key part of what we do. Research estimates roughly 20% of all people have a disability, and sometimes they’re visible, sometimes not. And many of us may not have a disability at that moment, but we may have one as we get older. It could be a physical disability; it could be hearing; it could be a variety of things,” Preuss said. “So as a Jewish community, we need to make sure that we have organizations throughout the community that understand this and have built their system … to really be inclusive for all, and it’s a core part of what it means to be a Jewish community,” Preuss said.