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JDAIM 2022 hears from roster of interesting speakers

Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month - Montreal
Montreal - Monday, March 28, 2022

By Randy Pinsky

For the second year in a row, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) was online, but this did not reduce the energy and diversity of events in the least!

Jewish communities across North America came together in February to work towards more inclusive societies through talks, events and heartfelt testimonies. From a drive-through Havdalah ceremony and discussion with members of the Shira Choir, to hearing from the world’s first Deaf female Rabbi and courageous families speaking about medical miracles, the Montreal community was treated to an inspiring roster of speakers celebrating difference. Here are a couple of highlights:

Autism insights from EMSB’s DG

“I’m speaking from the heart as both an educator and a parent,” Nick Katalifos told those attending the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom’s Lunch Together Online on February 8. The English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) director general was invited by the Temple’s newly named Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, and shared his insights on raising an autistic child.

Katalifos spoke about the challenges that students, educators and families face while caring for loved ones with special needs and celebrated the accomplishments of the community. He cited the example of Polaris Enterprise, an industry-based education and employment initiative for autistic adults. A collaboration between Giant Steps School and Loblaw Companies Ltd, Polaris is housed at Wagar Adult Education Centre of the EMSB, which Katalifos was principal of before becoming DG. The program provides employment readiness and vocational training to autistic adults aged 21 and older for job-specific employment with Loblaw companies or a similar industry setting. “Everybody deserves a chance,” Katalifos maintained. “Let’s give them that opportunity.”

Students meet the creators of Just As I Am

After last year’s launch, the Just As I Am documentary that follows Montreal’s Shira Choir through the course of the pandemic is still making waves.

Hundreds of Montreal high school students had the opportunity to virtually meet Cantor Danny Benlolo, film director Evan Beloff, cinematographer Noah Leon, and members of the choir between February 7 to 11, thanks to the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre. “The film is emblematic of the power of music,” observed Beloff. “We can all step up because as a community, we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable.”  

The choir has continued online, singing, “Oh When the COVID-19 Goes Marching Out.” “Music is a vehicle for happiness, to repair an often shattered world,” said Benlolo. “I honestly can’t think of a better way to give a voice to those less heard.”

More than one way to hear: Reflections from a Deaf Rabbi

The holiest Jewish prayer is the “Shema,” imploring God to listen to one's hopes. But what if you yourself can't hear? Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount hosted Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, the world’s first ordained female Deaf Rabbi, for their Shabbaton on February 11 and 12.

 In her sermon, “I Heard God's Voice at Sinai,” Dubowe said, “Whether it is in song, movement or prayer…in sign language or the spoken word, God hears and recognizes all of our voices. We too must…listen and embrace every single human being.”

 Listed as one of America's 50 most influential female rabbis (The Jewish Daily Forward, 2010), Dubowe leads Illinois’ Moses Montefiore Congregation.

 “You are different, and so am I,” she concluded. “We are all a blessing.”

Building bridges at the Dorshei Emet

One of the objectives of JDAIM is inspiring the community to take steps towards more inclusive societies.

Congregation Dorshei Emet in Hampstead invited members to reflect on inclusion as part of their “Building Bridges” series on February 24, which featured the insights of three special needs moms and one teacher of special needs students.

Joelle Dayan expressed the concern many parents feel about their child’s future: “Will [my son] be able to make his needs known? Live independently?”

Erika Tencer and Joan Gottman reinforced the role parents play as advocates for their kids, and Ian Segal, a teacher at Peter Hall School in Saint-Laurent, expressed the wish for more acceptance and understanding.

Dayan thoughtfully concluded, “I don't think Noah’s needs are so special - [they] are the same as yours and mine: to be loved. To belong.