Jewish Disability Awareness Month has special significance for Chad Freeman, 42, because the Potomac resident and Beth Sholom Congregation member’s daughter has myotonic dystrophy – a form of muscular dystrophy that affects muscles and other organs.
When Freeman took the reigns as chairman of the modern Orthodox synagogue’s inclusion committee this year, he wanted to reinvigorate the shul’s annual Disability Awareness Shabbat, which he described as becoming neglected over the past few years. The New York native was inspired by a special needs Shabbat he witnessed at his former synagogue — Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx — that was put on by the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/Jewish Council for Disabilities.
“I have a daughter who has some mild special needs and it’s something that always was dear to me and I wanted to get involved with it and basically I kind of had the torch passed to me to spearhead it and I came up with a few ideas here … and I thought (the New York Yachad Shabbat) would be a great model to do down here,” said Freeman. His daughter is 9 years old.
So this Friday and Saturday, Beth Sholom will be hosting a Yachad group from Baltimore and is planning a slate of events centered around disability inclusion, including a community Shabbat dinner on Friday night with up to 300 people, two guest speakers, and a disability movie screening on Saturday night.
The guest speakers are Yishai Barth and Elizabeth Weintraub. Barth, 18, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind, serves as an advocate and activist for people with disabilities and will talk about his expertise in assistive technology and how to live a full Jewish life. Weintraub, 48, is an advocacy specialist with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), serves on President Barack Obama’s Committee on People with Intellectual Disabilities, and hosts AUCD’s weekly video policy newsletter “Tuesdays with Liz: Disability Policy for All” where she recently interviewed Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
The film screening is part of the fourth annual ReelAbilities: Greater DC Disabilities Film Festival presented by the JCC of Northern Virginia. Israeli movie White Balance is about a teenage boy who has a passion for ice skating but is losing his hearing and thus his balance.
“We have a commitment to each and every Jew and every single Jewish soul is holy. Every soul is holy, but we have a special connection. We want to make sure that everybody can connect to Jewish prayer and holidays and rituals,” said Beth Sholom Rabbi Nissan Antine.
“There’s an idea in Judaism, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other. All Jews have to help each other out and our experience is not full if there are Jews out there that don’t have a full experience.
“So if Jews who don’t have special needs have prayer, have holidays, have all of those things, we can’t just walk along and say we have it because as long as other people don’t have it and as long as other Jews don’t have Jewish education and Jewish knowledge and Jewish opportunity for growth, then ours is lacking as well,” he said. “So we feel a very big responsibility to reach out, especially in this area.”