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Heightened humanity: reflections of Canadian volunteers

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This winter, fellow Torontonians Violet Esser and James Skinner became fast friends while volunteering at ALEH’s rehabilitative village in the Negev, where Esser looked after the toddlers in the special education school and Skinner tended to the therapeutic petting zoo. (Elie Klein photo)

For more than a decade, the Jewish world has known February by a different name: Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).  What began as a grassroots campaign spotlighting the importance of disability inclusion in Jewish spaces transformed into an influential international movement that promotes and inspires initiatives to make synagogues and community centres more accessible, programming that celebrates differences in Jewish schools, inclusive hiring practices in business and organizations, and so much more.

In its latest iteration, “acceptance” has been integrated into the JDAIM name to reflect a change in attitude and practice.  This month, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month aims to highlight the need for genuine acceptance of individuals with disabilities and the understanding that every person has something to contribute to our communities and the world, that our communities are not whole until all of us belong.

Driven by a desire to promote acceptance and true disability inclusion, thousands of Jews of every age have traveled from cities across North America to volunteer at ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities.

While each volunteer is introduced to ALEH in different ways, and each experience is unique, many volunteers have concluded their service with the assertion that they gained so much more from the experience than they gave, above all a newfound appreciation for humanity and new understanding of abilities.

Violet Esser, a retired dentist from Toronto, and a perpetual giver, sees her annual two-month volunteering stint as an invaluable learning experience about inclusion and the power of the human spirit.

Every year, Esser spends the spring and summer months knitting blankets for the babies and toddlers at ALEH’s residential facility in Jerusalem and then travels to Israel for Chanukah to personally deliver the beautiful handmade blankets, often asking her children and grandchildren to accompany her so that they can also take part in the mitzvah.  And because one good deed deserves another, ‘Super Savta’ – as she’s known to many in the organization – spends the next two weeks volunteering at ALEH’s rehabilitative village in the Negev looking after the toddlers in the special education school.

Known as ‘Super Savta,’ Violet Esser, a retired dentist from Toronto, spends two weeks every winter volunteering at ALEH’s special education school in the Negev. (Elie Klein photo)

“It just feels right to spend my time in an environment where human dignity and the respect for each individual is of the essence, where they regularly accomplish the feat of converting disability into ability.  Contributing as part of this team helps me become more sensitive towards others and is a great lesson in compassion, acceptance and humility,” said Esser, whose experience as a medical professional and a grandmother are always put to good use while volunteering with ALEH.

“As human beings, we can never be done learning and growing, and I always look forward to returning to my family after gaining such deep insights into the human condition.”

READ: FOCUS ON INCLUSION IN FEBRUARY

While volunteering in the Negev, Esser met fellow Torontonian James Skinner, an employee of the Ontario Government’s Ministry of Natural Resources, who spends most of his time fighting forest fires.  Though he has always been involved in nature conservation and other good acts, in recent months, Skinner started to feel that something was missing from his life, and he began looking to find a way to “give back to people who needed care.”

Skinner, who had been exploring converting to Judaism, began attending the Village Shul. During a Shabbat service, he learned about ALEH and decided to book his very first trip to Israel to lend a hand with Israel’s disability community and kickstart his conversion process.  Though Skinner only intended to stay at ALEH for a month, he fell in love with the residents under his care – and became fast friends with Esser – and extended his trip by an additional month.  He plans to take what he learned at ALEH back to Canada and volunteer with Torontonians with disabilities.

“The focus on integrating individuals with disabilities into the community is what spoke to me most and made it clear that I had to stick around and give more of my time, more of myself,” explained Skinner, who cared for a group of adult men with disabilities and also tended to ALEH’s therapeutic petting zoo.

“The service of firefighting is exciting and important, but it was always lacking that human connection.  My volunteering experience with individuals with disabilities lit a fire in my soul and provided my first real glimpse into the beauty of humanity.  When we internalize the fact that we are all created in the Divine image, and we all work together to assist, appreciate and elevate each other, our world becomes a near perfect place.  That’s the world I want to live in.”