Aaron Kaufman has never been an underachiever.
Since graduating from the University of Maryland, the 31-year-old has gone from jobs at the Arc of Maryland to state legislative staff and now to the Jewish Federations of North America, where he works as a senior legislative associate in Washington.
But as accomplished as he his, Kaufman said his mere presence in a room can make some people uncomfortable. He suffers from cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects development and motor skills.
“Everyone is polite and courteous and gracious, but I still detect times when I’m in a meeting and people without disabilities are uncomfortable,” Kaufman said.
So he and others are calling the Jewish community out, claiming it’s not as inclusive of people with intellectual and physical disabilities as it professes to be. And advocates are claiming that a new survey from RespectAbility shows a lack of nationwide inclusion of people with disabilities in leadership roles of Jewish organizations.
Of more than 4,000 respondents from the disabled community (including 133 Jews in the Washington region), only 18 percent nationwide said they felt that people with disabilities are encouraged to take on leadership roles of Jewish institutions. Of respondents in the Washington area, that number was 17 percent. Nationally, only 15 percent of Jews with disabilities knew of someone with a disability in a leadership position at a Jewish institution.
“The lack of role modeling, where there genuinely are not many people with disabilities in the Jewish community leadership yet, stands out,” said RespectAbility’s president, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. “There’s an expression, ‘If you see it, you can be it.’ And people need to see themselves in leadership, not just as people who participate in a program.”
Mizrahi said that in response to the survey results, RespectAbility will do more to spotlight leaders in the Jewish community with disabilities, whether they’re in lay leadership or full time positions. It also plans to further a conversation with Jewish federations and synagogues about mental health issues facing the community.
Kaufman said there’s still a stigma around mental health issues in a lot of corners of the Jewish community, and that friends of his have concealed their illnesses for fear of being stigmatized.
“It’s still taboo in society. I know people who say, ‘If I tell my boss I’m bipolar, she’s going to have visions of me having a meltdown,’” Kaufman said. “In a lot of instances, the Jewish community says the right things and that’s a positive step. … But in a lot instances it’s simply rhetoric, and if the Jewish community truly cares about combating that stigma, then they have to act instead of just words.”
And when it comes to leadership roles going to people with disabilities, Kaufman and Mizrahi say it’s often less cumbersome to create an inclusive environment than many institutions and employers think.
Kaufman credits the Jewish Federations of North America for making the necessary accommodations for him to thrive in his role lobbying members of Congress on issues affecting the disabled community.
His cerebral palsy contributes to certain learning disabilities, so Kaufman has trouble with grammar and proof-reading. To help, his employer purchased a dictation software and Grammarly, a program that checks for spelling and grammar errors. Often times, Kaufman said, bringing someone with a disability on board requires less than anticipated.
“If you want to be inclusive, then you have to go beyond the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” Kaufman said.
And if synagogues are worried about falling membership, both Mizrahi and Kaufman agree that there’s a largely untapped pool of Jews turned off from institutional life because they don’t feel included.
Because synagogues and other houses of worship are exempt from the equal access provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kaufman said some synagogues haven’t even made their bimah accessible to people with wheelchairs.
“When you’re not welcoming to the person with disabilities,” he said, their whole family “will not come when you lose that person.”