TORONTO — Community heroes too often go unthanked. Recently, a few were singled out at the recent awards reception for Itanu Toronto, the inclusion initiative of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
Keynote speaker Ellen Schwartz, right, presents a copy of her book, Lessons from Jacob, to Bnei Akiva representative Margalit Bernstein. [Mircea Popescu photo]
The Community Inclusion Awards of Excellence honour individuals, organizations and programs that have made a difference in the GTA. Recipients for 2010 are Bnei Akiva of Toronto, Beth Torah Congregation, and Dara Kahane, director of Bayview Glen Day Camp.
Beth Torah’s Rabbi Yossi Sapirman, speaking at the April 22 awards reception, accepted his award with humility, reiterating his congregation’s commitment to inclusiveness, regardless of physical, mental or intellectual disability, race, culture, sexual orientation or any other difference.
Sapirman spoke of the distinction between accessibility and inclusion. “If we are accessible but not inclusive, or inclusive but not accessible, can we really call ourselves a community?”
He thanked participants who attend from a Reena group home and who, he says, have inspired others with their “enthusiasm for being Jewish and their deep desire to participate fully. That aspiration has become our sacred commitment.”
The dessert reception, held at the CNIB building on Bayview, was itself a model event: beyond Braille signage and wheelchair accessibility, speakers were captioned on a prominent display screen, and the program was printed in a large, clear, legible font.
The evening included introductory remarks from Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, David Onley. Onley, who uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, has championed accessibility throughout his career in the public eye, first as a broadcaster and later in his present role.
He pointed out that while individuals with disabilities now have “easy physical access to fast food and hardware stores,” they still too often have little or difficult “access to places of spiritual worship.”
Onley challenged the Jewish community to do more than simply provide services, but rather, change attitudes toward those who are different. He commended the UJA for its “vision of a more inclusive Jewish community” and its ongoing commitment to breaking down “unwitting but powerful barriers.”
Barriers aren’t always visible. A youth group may seem diverse, but neglect the social and spiritual needs of children with intellectual disabilities. Through its Shevet Yuval program, Bnei Akiva of Toronto, part of an international religious Zionist youth organization, aims to “take away the idea of ‘doing chesed,’” according to leader James Williams, and replace it with one of sincere friendship.
“People are excited to see [the Shevet Yuval kids],” he says. “People will go out of their way to contact them during the week.”
The group holds Shabbatons and weekly learning programs at which every child – regardless of ability – is welcomed. Williams says there are also plans to incorporate further projects with other organizations such as Reena and Bloorview, which operates a children’s rehabilitation hospital and provides in-school programs for children and youth with special needs. .
Key to Bnei Akiva’s success have been training programs providing youth leaders with skills in facilitating diverse groups. “When our staff run programs, it’s at a level where everybody in the room, whatever disability you do or don’t have, can gain something from the program.”
A similar attitude can be seen at Bayview Glen Day Camp, under the leadership of director Dara Kahane. Through its Sunshine program, which integrates special-needs kids into the regular camp program, Kahane says camp becomes a “safe place,” for children who often face extreme challenges in their day-to-day lives: it gives them “a chance to be like everybody else.”
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Though children or even adults who see the treatment offered to special-needs kids may say, “that’s not fair,” for Kahane, fair is “not giving everybody the same thing; fair is giving everybody what they need.”
One camper for whom Bayview Glen has made a difference is Jacob Schwartz. Jacob was diagnosed as a newborn with Canavan disease, and doctors told his parents he would never sit up, speak, see or eat. They also said he probably wouldn’t live much beyond his third birthday.
His mother, Ellen Schwartz, author of the book Lessons from Jacob, was the keynote speaker at the awards event, and talked not only of her family’s trials – such as Jacob’s seven brain surgeries before his fourth birthday – but also of moments when she can sit back and enjoy Jacob’s sunny, appreciative disposition, and the fact that, against all odds, family and friends will celebrate his bar mitzvah this month.
Herself an unsung community hero who has founded an organization, Jacob’s Ladder, and raised $2 million toward research and awareness of neurodegenerative diseases, Schwartz called on the Jewish community to “celebrate our special society, open up our minds to a completely different world… a better world.”
Attendees at the awards evening, including Beth David’s Cheryl Katz, are bringing that message back to their own congregations. “We have to be able to accommodate people.” In Ontario, inclusion will become the law in January 2012, requiring synagogues and other organizations to meet provincial accessibility standards. “It’s more than just barrier-free – it’s how we include other people.”
Others, like elementary-school principal Debbie Donsky, are spreading the word beyond the Jewish community. “It’s not just the idea of tolerance,” says Donsky, who once worked at Bayview Glen, attended to support Kahane. “Both sides have assets… Everyone is welcome, everyone learns from each other.”
Past award recipients have included Reena’s Sandy Keshen, Camp George, Chabad-Lubavitch and the late Rabbi Joseph Kelman, who received a lifetime achievement award for nearly 50 years of advocacy for children with developmental disabilities.
The awards evening was the culmination of Community Inclusion Week 2010, which began with the city-wide Shabbat Itanu on April 17 and included other events such as film screenings and lectures.
For more information about the awards, inclusion week, or for resources, including an event planning checklist, visit www.itanutoronto.ca.