Conservative/Egalitarian Judaism and Disability Inclusion

by Kenny Kalman - American University | Posted on June 9, 2013
Kenny Kalman

With several billion people in the world, only one in several hundred identify as Jewish. Of those, many are non-practicing. This means perhaps less than one in a thousand are practicing Jews who identify with a movement. Most of those affiliated in Israel identify as Orthodox or Haredim, as non-Orthodox Judaism is not officially recognized by the state. Nonetheless, there is a strong network of Masorti Jews in Israel. North America has about an equal Jewish population, and like Israel, many are also unaffiliated. However, North American Jewry is split between Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and other smaller denominations.

In many ways I have been included in the Jewish community, but not entirely. I have often felt that others I have known, such as my bunkmates at Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin deserve the very same benefits from a Jewish community with open arms to include them. For some, their Jewish backgrounds were formed more or less in their homes or synagogues. Many of us were from Conservative Jewish congregations across the country, though a handful were from Reconstructionist, Reform, or even no congregational affiliation due to the lack of resources in their community. The fact that these individuals from other movements came to a Conservative camp due to its ability to accommodate their needs, means that the Conservative movement is making some efforts
other movements do not. Also in Israel, the Masorti movement is known for promoting disability inclusion as it provides services such as Bar and Bat Mitzvah experiences for Jews with disabilities.

My peers at synagogue have always made me feel included. Because of this and the good ties I had with my peers since preschool and elementary-aged summer day camp at Ramot Amoona, my experiences in USY and religious school were positive. However, there were also times I felt excluded. My parents were excited to have a Solomon Schecter Day School on our synagogue’s property and hoped to send me there. Nonetheless, it was determined that the school lacked the resources to include me, and my parents’ options were to keep me enrolled in public school or have me attend an orthodox school which provides accommodations. But due to the importance of egalitarian Judaism, my parents opted not to send me to the orthodox school and kept me in public school. That was one hard fought battle lost, and now, I hope to join with others to help ensure that the entire Conservative movement is egalitarian by including everyone, and more resources and training must be used to make this a reality.

In addition, my parents and I were also upset to hear that my dream of becoming a Tikvah counselor was out of reach due to liability concerns, which I find understandable since it is important for our movement’s institutions to have staff qualified to perform all the necessary duties of a camp counselor. However, I am grateful to have the opportunity to be part of the wonderful Ramah community and due to my own advocacy, was one of the first two to go on the incoming tenth grade (Machon) campout after it was determined not suitable a couple of years earlier when many Tikvah campers went.

While I did not become a staff member, the Atzmayim (Tikvah Vocational Program) experience was very meaningful for two summers as I gained many vocational skills in working in a local library and facilitating programs both at camp and at the library. The following summers, a couple of Tikvah campers were sent on the trips each year and soon some Tikvah campers were fully integrated into the regular edot (age groups).

Due to my medical needs of needing two new hips after pain and immobility plagued my sophomore year, I was not able to attend camp for an eighth summer. I have considered returning as staff or as a visitor, but internship commitments have prevented me from doing so. However, I hope to visit not only Wisconsin again, but the other Ramah camps I have seen as well.

This summer I will be working on a broad range of issues on disability advocacy, which includes inclusion in faith communities. As I move on to the busy life of graduate school, I also feel the duty to find the time to work on inclusion in the many Jewish communities we are part of, particularly in the Conservative movement. However, this is not something I can do alone. The connections I’ve made with, and feel the assistance of students across the continent through KOACH will be essential to ensuring the many Conservative congregations and institutions are fully inclusive.

Kenny Kalman just graduated from American University and has always been passionate about disability rights and inclusion in society and the Jewish community. A past participant in KOACH’s Taglit-Birthright Israel program for students with Asperger’s Syndrome, in the fall, Kenny will enroll in University of Delaware’s MPA program.

Tamuz 5773

Denominational Judaism