WHC’s Disability Champion

Jennifer Wolfsheimer headshot

You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. — Leviticus 19:14

Jennifer Wolfsheimer has been an advocate for disability awareness her entire life. So when she was invited to join Washington Hebrew’s SEA Change initiative last year, she knew immediately it was a great opportunity. “I’ve always embedded myself in conversations where there aren’t disability voices being elevated,” Wolfsheimer says. “With such a large congregation, and being in the Washington, D.C. area, we need to be inclusive and ensure that not only able-bodied members, or members with [physical] disabilities are being included, but also anybody with diverse learning, or who identifies as having a disability, who needs accommodations to participate in services and activities, feels welcomed.”

For the past 15 years, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) has been recognized each February as a time to celebrate the contributions of Jewish people with disabilities and advocate for their full inclusion in all aspects of Jewish life. This year, JDAIM is more important than ever, as the Jewish community grapples with how to create a more welcoming and inclusive space for everyone.

Wolfsheimer was born with cerebral palsy and has faced discrimination and a lack of accommodations throughout her life. Despite these challenges, she has achieved great things, earning both a master’s degree and a law degree from Syracuse University and passing the California Bar. Using those skills, she has been influential in creating equitable special education policies for school districts nationwide.

That drive to help improve others’ experiences is one of the things that pushed her to convert to Judaism before getting married. “The one thing that did attract me to the Jewish faith was the idea of repairing broken pieces, and a commitment to social action ensuring that we can make things a little better, piece by piece, one person at a time.”

Wolfsheimer’s story is a powerful reminder that people with disabilities are as deserving of respect as anyone else. Yet, she says, too often people with disabilities are marginalized and excluded from Jewish communal life.

“I’ve experienced a decent amount of ableism through not only people’s expectations, or lack thereof of me, but also the lack of accommodations for someone with a physical disability to access either education or working environments,” Wolfsheimer said.

She adds that there are many reasons why it is important to create a more inclusive Jewish community for people with disabilities. It is simply the right thing to do. Every person deserves to feel welcome and valued in their community, regardless of their abilities.

Wolfsheimer says it is critical “to ensure that our kids with disabilities who are preparing for a b’nei mitzvah are being treated and accommodated accordingly, so that they feel in every step of the way that they are owning their Jewish experience in a way that’s honorable for them.”

Including people with disabilities can make the Jewish community stronger. People with disabilities have a unique perspective to offer, and their talents and skills can benefit the entire community.

Finally, creating a more inclusive Jewish community is essential for the future of Judaism. As the population ages, more people with disabilities will need support. JDAIM is a reminder that by educating ourselves, and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment now, we can ensure everyone has a place in Jewish life.

How can we make the Jewish community more inclusive for people with disabilities?

  • Educate ourselves about disability issues. There are many resources available to help us learn more about disability and how to be more inclusive. Wolfsheimer suggests Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann as a good place to start.
  • Be mindful and avoid using ableist language and stereotypes. Though often inadvertent, ableist language like “handicapped” or “birth defect” suggests that people with disabilities are abnormal.
  • Make our synagogues and other Jewish institutions accessible. This means making sure our buildings are physically accessible and our programs can be experienced by people with all abilities. Support organizations that are working to create a more inclusive Jewish community.

Visit jdaim.org for more information and resources.