Dance4Empowerment – a dance program for the disabled

Dance4Empowerment – a dance program for the disabled

Sierra Weiss
Founder and Director of dance4empowerment

In March, I visited ALEH’s Jerusalem facility during Gann Academy’s “Exploration Week.”  While my high school offered many community service and inter grade programs throughout the United States, I decided to travel to Israel to spend time learning about a few of Israel’s pioneer programs for people with disabilities.  My trip was an integral and inspirational part of my journey to create a dance program for people with disabilities in Boston, dance4empowerment, now a 501(c)(3) non-profit in Massachusetts.  Another piece of my journey took place back in Boston as an intern at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).

Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) recently launched the CJP inclusion resources blogto help connect Boston’s Jewish community “to the latest in accessibility, inclusion, and the cutting edge of programs and events for people of all abilities and those who care about them.” CJP’s mission is to bring together people, partners, and resources to fulfill the most important needs and aspirations of the community. CJP’s efforts to eliminate separation of people with and without disabilities by creating a philosophy of inclusion and community for people of all abilities is one way it furthers its mission.

When CJP started its journey as the Federation of Jewish Charities of Boston (FJCB) in 1895 people with disabilities were not included in American society.  Following a trend toward creating better living conditions for people with disabilities, the young CJP welcomed the Jewish Big Brother Association into their foundation.  This program was one of the first to reach out to individuals with disabilities and families. Renamed Jewish Big Brothers Big Sistersin 1976, it continues to be “dedicated to enriching the lives of children and of adults with disabilities.” The program benefits people with disabilities, and also significantly impacts volunteers—a Big Sister, Lisa, said, “she adds a ray of light to my life.”

In the mid-1900s, many states, including Massachusetts, took it upon themselves to create more facilities for the disabled. CJP, a pioneer in creating programs to benefit people with disabilities established Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) in 1946. JF&CS“helps people of all faiths, races, and ages with the challenges of life”. JF&CS is “proud to be the place that new mothers, young families, people with disabilities, fragile elders, and the chronically poor can turn to for vital and personalized services.”

Transitions to Work, started in 2011 and a collaboration among CJP, The Ruderman Family Foundation and Jewish Vocational Service, trains young adults with disabilities to develop the skills needed for employment and place them into jobs that provide earnings and a sense of purpose. It also builds relationships with employers to raise awareness about inclusive hiring practices and engage corporate partners to consider young adults with disabilities as qualified, committed candidates for employment opportunities. Through employment, these young adults have the opportunity to become meaningful participants in their communities.

The program that sparked my interest in people with disabilities is the Tikvahprogram at Camp Ramah New England (CRNE) where I interacted daily with campers with special needs. The Tikvah program provides children with disabilities an opportunity to be away from home, make new friends,  and participate in a wide array of activities every day. Playing sports, exercising, and just hanging out with the Tikvah campers was humbling and rewarding. For more than 40 years,  the tikvah Program has been serving campers with a wide range of special needs and is an integral part of the CRNE community.

The Tikvah program inspired me to continue working with children with disabilities throughout the year at Gatewaysin Boston.  At Gateways, I help children with disabilities learn, function in a classroom, be social, and connect with Judaism and the Hebrew language.  Since 2006, Gateway’s vision has been: “To enable Jewish children with special educational needs to become successful participants in the Jewish community”.  In addition to their Sunday program, the Mitzvah Mensches program and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring programs provide consultation and support to synagogues, community supplemental schools, and Jewish preschools.  The Tikvah program and Gateways mirror CJP’s mission to create accessibility and equality for people with disabilities.  Further, they empower those with disabilities to be independent, to work together, and to immerse themselves in Judaism and the Jewish community.  Both programs bring people of all abilities together to celebrate their heritage and make strong bonds.

Throughout American history, people with disabilities faced many struggles and severe discrimination. It is hard to look back and understand that just 150 years ago people with disabilities were living in terrible conditions.  Through my work with individual with disabilities, I have learned how CJP’s role in enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities is truly inspiring.  A pioneer in inclusion, CJP continues to teach and empower individuals with disabilities by providing the tools, skills, and programs needed to be independent. CJP has also educated the broader community on issues of inclusivity and how individuals of all abilities can work and enjoy activities together.

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