HEIGHTENED HUMANITY: REFLECTIONS OF CANADIAN VOLUNTEERS

HEIGHTENED HUMANITY: REFLECTIONS OF CANADIAN VOLUNTEERS

The Canadian Jewish News

For more than a decade, the Jewish world has known February
by a different name: Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month
(JDAIM).  What began as a grassroots campaign spotlighting the importance
of disability inclusion in Jewish spaces transformed into an influential
international movement that promotes and inspires initiatives to make
synagogues and community centres more accessible, programming that celebrates
differences in Jewish schools, inclusive hiring practices in business and
organizations, and so much more.

In its latest iteration, “acceptance” has been integrated into the JDAIM name to reflect a change in attitude and practice.  This month, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month aims to highlight the need for genuine acceptance of individuals with disabilities and the understanding that every person has something to contribute to our communities and the world, that our communities are not whole until all of us belong.

Driven by a desire to promote acceptance and true disability
inclusion, thousands of Jews of every age have traveled from cities across
North America to volunteer at ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with
severe complex disabilities.

While each volunteer is introduced to ALEH in different
ways, and each experience is unique, many volunteers have concluded their
service with the assertion that they gained so much more from the experience
than they gave, above all a newfound appreciation for humanity and new understanding
of abilities.

Violet Esser, a retired dentist from Toronto, and a
perpetual giver, sees her annual two-month volunteering stint as an invaluable
learning experience about inclusion and the power of the human spirit.

Every year, Esser spends the spring and summer months
knitting blankets for the babies and toddlers at ALEH’s residential facility in
Jerusalem and then travels to Israel for Chanukah to personally deliver the
beautiful handmade blankets, often asking her children and grandchildren to accompany
her so that they can also take part in the mitzvah.  And because one good
deed deserves another, ‘Super Savta’ – as she’s known to many in the
organization – spends the next two weeks volunteering at ALEH’s rehabilitative
village in the Negev looking after the toddlers in the special education
school.

 “It just feels right
to spend my time in an environment where human dignity and the respect for each
individual is of the essence, where they regularly accomplish the feat of
converting disability into ability.  Contributing as part of this team
helps me become more sensitive towards others and is a great lesson in
compassion, acceptance and humility,” said Esser, whose experience as a medical
professional and a grandmother are always put to good use while volunteering
with ALEH.

“As human beings, we can never be done learning and growing,
and I always look forward to returning to my family after gaining such deep
insights into the human condition.”

While volunteering in the Negev, Esser met fellow
Torontonian James Skinner, an employee of the Ontario Government’s Ministry of
Natural Resources, who spends most of his time fighting forest fires. 
Though he has always been involved in nature conservation and other good acts,
in recent months, Skinner started to feel that something was missing from his
life, and he began looking to find a way to “give back to people who needed
care.”

Skinner, who had been exploring converting to Judaism, began
attending the Village Shul. During a Shabbat service, he learned about ALEH and
decided to book his very first trip to Israel to lend a hand with Israel’s
disability community and kickstart his conversion process.  Though Skinner
only intended to stay at ALEH for a month, he fell in love with the residents
under his care – and became fast friends with Esser – and extended his trip by
an additional month.  He plans to take what he learned at ALEH back to
Canada and volunteer with Torontonians with disabilities.

“The focus on integrating individuals with disabilities into
the community is what spoke to me most and made it clear that I had to stick
around and give more of my time, more of myself,” explained Skinner, who cared
for a group of adult men with disabilities and also tended to ALEH’s
therapeutic petting zoo.

“The service of firefighting is exciting and important, but
it was always lacking that human connection.  My volunteering experience
with individuals with disabilities lit a fire in my soul and provided my first
real glimpse into the beauty of humanity.  When we internalize the fact
that we are all created in the Divine image, and we all work together to
assist, appreciate and elevate each other, our world becomes a near perfect
place.  That’s the world I want to live in.”