February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which was launched a decade ago to encourage Jewish communities worldwide to enable members with physical or intellectual challenges to fully participate in society and to dispel stereotypes. But Cantor Daniel Benlolo was ahead of the curve.
In 2002, he founded the Tamir Neshama Choir in Ottawa, which is composed of adults with developmental disabilities. Under his direction, the choir learned an eclectic repertoire of liturgical and Israeli songs, as well as Broadway and pop hits, and performed at synagogues, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, on Parliament Hill and at city-wide events. It also toured Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Florida and Israel.
The choir’s 2010 production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat sold out three theatrical dates and was the subject of a documentary. At Benlolo’s insistence, the disabled people in the production were featured most prominently, or had equal staging with the able-bodied cast members. That meant two Josephs in the lead, and even Benlolo, who played Pharaoh Elvis Ramses, shared the stage with a disabled partner.
The choir is under the auspices of the Tamir Foundation, a Jewish social services organization of the Jewish community that assists people with disabilities.
Benlolo, who returned to Montreal in 2017 after 22 years in Ottawa to become cantor at Shaare Zedek Congregation, is trying to create a similar choir in Montreal and has received a Federation CJA grant to do so.
The new Shira Choir is open to any adult (18 and over) with a developmental disability who loves to sing, would enjoy a regular group activity and would like to perform in public.
Benlolo is a firm believer in the power of music and singing to bring out the potential of people with disabilities. He has seen even those who were close to non-verbal blossom in his choir.
The cantor’s infectious exuberant personality no doubt was a big factor in instilling self-confidence in his singers.
His sensitivity stems from having a nephew, now 27, who has mental and visual challenges. Singing with him has allowed Benlolo to connect with him on a deeper level than would otherwise be possible.
Benlolo can also testify to how the Tamir Neshama Choir changed attitudes toward the disabled. That common discomfort or awkwardness vanished when audiences saw the joy and enthusiasm exhibited by its members.
A choir in Montreal is needed, he said, because there is a lack of regular social or recreational programming for disabled people, especially young adults. In Quebec, by 21, they “age out” of the system and are no longer eligible for most government support.
“People have called me so excited because they say there is nothing out there for their family members,” he said.
All rehearsals of the Shira Choir will be held at the Shaare Zedek synagogue in NDG. Prospective members should be available for at least one evening practice a week and have access to their own transportation.
The repertoire will be wide ranging and, in time, the choir will perform in the community. Benlolo welcomes volunteers to work with him.
The project, which is known as Sh’ma Koleinu-Hear Our Voices, is under the joint aegis of the Shaare Zedek and the Tamir Foundation.
Benlolo still in regular contact with his old choir and plans to foster regular contact between the two by bringing Neshama members to Montreal three times a year for joint programs.
“One of the hardest things about leaving Ottawa was leaving the choir,” he said.
Benlolo thinks society still has a ways to go in getting past the “patronizing” attitude that holds many disabled people back.
“Stuffing envelopes is not enough,” he said. “There have been Neshama members who went from doing that to a regular job at Tim Hortons. One decided she wanted to be a diva, started taking singing and acting lessons, and now writes her own songs and puts them on YouTube.”
In the Montreal Jewish community, he notices that many synagogues have exterior ramps, but few have ramps up to the bimah, thereby making it difficult for those with mobility problems to have an aliyah, for example.
“I get so upset about it,” he said. “There are obstacles that are so clear and yet avoidable.”
For its part, the Federation had this to say in a prepared statement:
“In 2016, Federation CJA undertook a community needs assessment to identify the gaps in services for young adults with disabilities in the Montreal Jewish community. In keeping with the recommendations of this study, Federation CJA is actively supporting initiatives that meet the needs of this population and that promote inclusion for persons of all abilities and their families.
“Federation CJA helped to facilitate the submission of the Shaare Zedek Congregation and Tamir Foundation’s ‘Sh’ma Koleinu-Hear Our Voices’ project to Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, in response to their call for proposals for projects aimed at stimulating inclusive practices in communities across Canada.”
For further details, contact Benlolo at [email protected], or 514-484-1122 ext. 108.