As we prepare for Keshet’s 40th birthday celebration, there are many things circling in my head. I can’t help but think about our humble beginnings 40 years ago, when a small group of parents joined together to find a way to provide a place in the Jewish community for their children with disabilities. Their children were not easily welcomed in Jewish days schools, camps and synagogues. They could not participate or be with their siblings, neighbors and cousins in Jewish programming. As a result of those parents’ vision and tenacity, Keshet was born. As we celebrate our forty years, and my own almost 30 years with Keshet and the inclusion sector, I find myself reflecting on our impact and how far we have come as an organization and a community.
Since our inception Keshet has been committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of communal life. What began 40 years ago as our Sunday school with 12 students has grown into a large organization that has built a community of belonging for everyone. Supporting educational, recreational, adult programming and residential opportunities for individuals with disabilities from the age of 3 through their entire lives.
Before Keshet, before section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and before the Americans with Disabilities Act, many of our participants may have ended up in institutions or at home with few opportunities. They certainly would not have been included in communal life. Throughout our programs we support our children and adults to have meaningful lives, purpose and independence. We know the impact our programs have on the day-to-day lives of our participants and their families as we continue to find spaces where they are welcome, included and where they find belonging. Our impact, however, extends beyond our participants and extends so far outside just our local community. When our adults are included in all aspects of communal life, work, synagogue, volunteering and recreational opportunities; we influence long held assumptions about people with disabilities. We break down the attitudinal barriers that keep our spaces inaccessible and preclude people with disabilities from inclusion and belonging. We show the value that people with disabilities bring to our community.
As I further consider Keshet’s impact on our communities, I’m overwhelmed with optimism. There is impact we have that is subtle yet powerful, foundational yet long lasting, and most assuredly transformational in creating a more just society where everyone belongs. When children with disabilities go to school and camp beginning in preschool, these preschoolers develop different mindsets about disability than generations before them. These young children have the opportunity to develop a mindset about disability that disability is just a part of the human experience, they will assume we are all the same in different ways. They will embrace and welcome their disabled peers because for them there is no reason why they wouldn’t. From an early age these children learn to include, welcome and value their disabled peers. When children with and without disabilities are in school, camp, recreational activities and synagogues together they don’t know another way. This is the generation that gives me hope for a future where we won’t need laws and regulations to create access and inclusion. This is a generation of future teachers, health professionals, legislators and employers who will see the rights of people with disabilities as a given. They are the generation who will consider access, ensure inclusion and transform all of our communities to be welcoming and where every disabled individual knows they too belong. We just will all belong in our community and we will know no different way.
We are now seeing a generation of young parents, some of whom have grown up within our Keshet family. Others have siblings with disabilities, some have grown up in our schools’, camps or recreation programs. These parents see the value and want their children to grow up in the richness of a community where all people are valued for the uniqueness. This is the beauty of Keshet for today and tomorrow. We have so much to celebrate, and celebrate we will at our birthday party.