Opening Hearts About People With Disabilities

By John S. Ruskay

“What’s your favorite movie?” I am told that’s a frequent icebreaker because movies are such equalizers. We’ve all been to the movies; we’ve all been powerfully moved by movies. Movies often introduce us to worlds we can only imagine.This week, a film transported me to a village in Israel, where a boy preparing for his bar mitzvah must relate to his brother who has autism and can barely communicate. What seems at first like an enormous burden on the boy and his family evolves into something quite different, something that awakens and heals. The movie, called Mabul, (“The Flood”), is one of the dozen movies screened at this year’s ReelAbilities film festival.The fourth annual ReelAbilities: New York Disabilities Film Festival is the brainchild of Anita Altman in our government relations department. Her vision and drive demonstrate yet again how one person can change the world or a part of it. Together with the JCC in Manhattan, and with the generous support of the J.E.& Z.B. Butler Foundation among others, including UJA-Federation, Anita brought the festival into being to help raise public consciousness, and open hearts and minds to the lives of people with disabilities. ReelAbilities has gone national this year, with festivals in 10 cities, including Cincinnati, Atlanta, Boston, and Washington D.C.Movies take issues that we often think about from a public policy perspective and strip away the statistics to reveal the humanity and people involved. People who may not walk, or talk, or think the way we do, but crave friendship and community just the same. We speak often about making our community more open and inclusive to people with disabilities. Our funding supports programs that include a baseball league for kids on the autism spectrum, synagogue inclusion programs, and job training. We care about making life better for people with disabilities but for most of us, gaining insight into their lives requires imagination. Film can make the reality more intimate. It certainly did for me.As we mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, it’s a powerful opportunity to reconnect to our tradition’s core belief that every person is created B’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We need to recommit to support critical programming for people with disabilities and also to see more clearly who they are — people with lives as complicated, messy, precious, and beautiful as our own.

John S. Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.

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