I’ve had the privilege of being involved with Matan since 2001. Since that time, the organization has changed its tagline multiple times. It began as Matan: the Gift of Jewish learning for Every Child. This tagline saw the educational experience that could be provided to a child with special needs as the ultimate gift. Currently the organization’s tagline is Matan: For every child. For every community. The Gift of Jewish Learning. I’m not sure how much other people pay attention to taglines or mission statements, but as somebody with a Masters degree in nonprofit management, I have come to believe that they are extremely important, especially if they change or evolve. In the case of Matan I take extraordinary pride in that evolution. My pride comes from that fact that not only am I a board member who has seen the organization go through a positive shift, but more importantly because I am a member of the Jewish community with disabilities. I believe the shift represents a transformation of the communal understanding of the role of people with disabilities within our community and the importance of including those of us with disabilities.
Let me explain, when Matan began it was generally understood by those involved that Jewish education was a gift and that by putting it in a form in which children with special needs could participate, we would be able to provide access to the Jewish community for these individuals and their families. In other words, inclusion was seen to benefit primarily people with disabilities and their families. The new tagline, while acknowledging the benefits of inclusion for people with disabilities and their families, also acknowledges the far more profound, and in my opinion, important benefits of inclusion, those experienced by the community as a whole. By understanding that the mainstream population, whom should be more accurately described as those who have yet to be diagnosed with a disability, can learn something from us, the people with disabilities, it empowers us and more accurately reflects reality. This concept that every individual has something to contribute to the community is effectively articulated in Parashat Ki Tisa which this year will be read on Saturday, February 19th. The Parsha discusses that the children of Israel are required by God to take a census. Rather than counting each person, all who participate in the census are required to donate no more and no less than one half shekel. By insisting that each person regardless of wealth donate the same amount the Torah is demonstrating that each person is equally valued. There is no difference based on perceived ability. Furthermore by choosing the value of a half shekel rather than a full shekel the Torah seems to be suggesting that each person can only reach its full potential when he is included communally with others.
It is my hope that our celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness Month and North American Inclusion Month this February will inspire us to embrace people with disabilities and inclusion within the Jewish Community, not only in February but throughout the year.
Jason Lieberman serves as a board member and treasurer of Matan. Diagnosed with both cerebral palsy spastic diplegia and inattentive adhd, jason is a tireless advocate for the full integration of people with disabilities in all aspects of jewish life and community