At a luncheon in Virginia Beach last month, visiting Israeli Avital Sandler-Loeff described how difficult it can be to live with a physical disability in Israel.
“Think about Jerusalem,” Sandler-Loeff says. “Now try to imagine yourself in a wheelchair going in the old city and in the villages and in the north end.”
With its network of stairs and uneven stone alleys and roads, navigating in the city—and much of Israel—is out of reach for many with limited mobility.
Those with other physical or mental disabilities face many hurtles as well, says Sandler-Loeff, of Israel Unlimited, an organization that is a partnership of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Israeli Government and the Ruderman Family Foundation. Israel Unlimited was initiated by JDCIsrael’s Division for Disabilities and Rehabilitation with a goal of developing community-based support systems for adults with disabilities.
An important component of Israel Unlimited’s work is the establishment of JDC Centers for Independent Living throughout Israel. CILs are community-based centers run by the disabled for the disabled, providing clients with information, peer counseling, and professional training, and enabling people with disabilities to live as part of the general community. Raising public awareness toward the disabled is also a goal of the CILs.
In 2011, the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater played a vital part in opening the Tel Aviv CIL. Speaking to members of the Women’s Cabinet Spring Luncheon, Sandler-Loeff personally thanked Laura Miller, an involved UJFT lay leader and current JDC board member, as well as the generosity of the Tidewater community who, through their gifts to the Annual Campaign, ensured the establishment of the Tel Aviv Center. This CIL, Sandler-Loeff says, has made Tel Aviv and Jaffa a better place to live for those with disabilities.
A report the JDC prepared for the UJFT highlights some of the achievements made at the Tel Aviv CIL in 2012. More than 200 people with a wide range of disabilities received services throughout the year, and countless others were impacted by the CILs awareness-raising activities, according to the report.
Bank workshops were held to help teach money management and personal budgeting skills. A course in beginner sign language was launched for clients to elevate their communication abilities. CIL members entered a professional radio training course, held social events, started a social media presence and helped produce the “Day of Accessibility” sponsored by the Student Association at the University of Tel Aviv.
While the Tel Aviv CIL continues to grow and expand its programming and client base, Sandler-Loeff notes that with about one million disabled Israelis, much work remains in that city and throughout the rest of the country.
“[Israel] is still a very inaccessible society— I’m not too proud to admit it’s also not a very welcoming society [for the disabled],” she says. “There is a lot that should be done in this direction and we’re trying hard. The optimistic side is that we call it ‘The Decade of the Disabled,’ like there are an inspiring group of people with disabilities who are saying, ‘We want a new generation of services for a new generation of people with disabilities.’”
Over her 18 year career working with the JDC and people with disabilities, Sandler-Loeff says she has learned some important lessons.
First and foremost, she says, people with disabilities are people with abilities. Secondly, Israelis need to say YIMFY, not NIMBY—“yes in my front yard” rather than “not in my back yard.” Third, in the past, the disabled in Israel were a hidden and silent minority, and they should be seen as part of the community, not tucked away in a nursing home or isolated. Sandler-Loeff says her organization consistently finds people in their 20s living in nursing homes for the elderly because there are not good services in their community that support independent living.
Finally, she says, the goal of Israel United and the JDC’s CILs is to empower individuals with disabilities to say, “We’re here, we know what is best for us and we will make [changes] happen. This is what we do in the CIL in Tel Aviv.”
Through the generosity of donors to the UJFT Annual Campaign, our community is able to support the work of agencies like the JDC, whose mission in Israel is to represent the UJFT and North America’s Jewish Federations in helping Israeli society enhance its own capacity to meet the needs of its weakest and least fortunate members.
by Laine Mednick Rutherford