Social Justice

Reaffirming our Commitment to Inclusion for All

Although I was saddened that I could not attend the CCAR Convention last month due to an injury, I was overjoyed to hear such great things about the Convention from the colleagues I’ve talked to over the past few weeks. I was especially delighted to learn that the CCAR passed a resolution affirming the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

The Reform Movement has come a long way in welcoming and affirming LGBT individuals. I am proud that our Movement continues to serve as an example of inclusivity to other Jewish movements and other faiths.

While the Convention, rightfully, focused on the importance of LGBT inclusion in our Movement, I would be remiss if I did not highlight another minority whose struggle for equality is often overlooked: people with disabilities. An estimated 1 billion people — 15 percent of the world population – live with a disability, and nearly one in five Americans has a disability.  Yet the voice of that significant majority is barely heard.

Despite progress in advancing disability rights, such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and incremental additions to it, people with disabilities still lag behind the national average in education completed, employment rates (the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is almost double the national average), income, technology access, homeownership and voter participation. People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities and are overrepresented among the poorest people worldwide.

The Religious Action Center has been a tireless advocate for disability rights for many years. At this time, the RAC and the larger disability rights advocacy community have been focusing their advocacy efforts on ensuring the solvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund. SSDI provides monthly benefits to millions of people who have contributed to the SSDI trust fund through payroll taxes in the past but whose ability to work is currently limited because of a disability. SSDI beneficiaries are some of the most vulnerable Americans; around 70% of SSDI recipients are over 50 years old and it is estimated that half of those receiving SSDI benefits would live in poverty without the program. In 2016, the (SSDI) Trust Fund is set to become insolvent, resulting in 20% across-the-board cut in benefits to all SSDI beneficiaries.

Just as I am proud of the strides our community has taken to include LGBT individuals in Jewish life, I am equally proud of our Movement’s work to include people with disabilities. Yet, there is still more work we must do in order to fully include people with disabilities in both our Jewish communities and our larger society. If we want to make changes in our community in order to include people with disabilities, we must begin by opening the eyes of people without disabilities and help them understand that they have to change their attitudes. There is a saying in the disability community that goes, “Before ramping buildings, you’ve got to ramp attitudes.”  We have got to encourage our communities to change their attitudes from “pity” to “possibilities.” This idea is rooted in our tradition; Psalm 82:3 3 reads, “Defend the poor and the orphan, do justice to the afflicted and needy.”  The Midrash on that psalm (Midrash Tehillim) points out, “It does not say, ‘Have pity on them,’ but ‘Do justice to.’”

On the heels of the 2015 Convention, I hope we rabbis can recommit ourselves to creating and fostering inclusive environments for all people. To that end, we must challenge ourselves to seek out and empower Jewishly those with disabilities. As Americans and leaders of the Jewish community, we must continue to display our support for clear inclusion for people with disabilities, as well as the LGBT community. We do so most effectively by educating our communities, thereby ensuring accessibility and inclusive programming in our synagogues and larger community. We also must offer an articulate voice to advocate for the rights of Americans with disabilities and the larger LGBT community on the local, state and national levels.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg
Co-chair, CCAR Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion Senior Advisor on Disability Rights Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism


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Help Needed Now for People with Disabilities Worldwide: UN Disability Treaty

Hillel, asks, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)

This month’s U.S. legislative agenda will give Americans with disabilities and their supporters (including we Jews) the opportunity to respond fully to the last two of Hillel’s three questions.  We can respond positively –IF we choose to take part in the current Senate debate regarding the ratification of the UN Disability Treaty.

What seems like yesterday to some of us and a world ago to others, the ADA became the law of the land.  Prior to that, we people with disabilities were treated as second class citizens.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Americans with disabilities and our friends were “for ourselves” when we for the first time in history became an organized political force.  We did not rest until in 1990 we were given the full rights we U.S. citizens deserved.

No one was “for us” had we not been “for ourselves.” How dare we now sit back and be “only for ourselves,” enjoying our public accommodations or basking in our lawful, if not fully implemented, access to opportunity without looking outside of ourselves, beyond our borders.

We need not look far to see that worldwide not only are basic rights denied to people with disabilities but punishment is incurred simply for being born with or acquiring a disability.  It is tragic that throughout the world people with disabilities are denied fundamental rights.

Drafted in 2006, the UN Disability Treaty officially called “The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” or “CRPD” addresses this worldwide concern.  The UN Disability Treaty gives international affirmation to the rights of people with disabilities to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

In 2009 our UN Ambassador signed the UN Disability Treaty on behalf of the U.S.  As per UN requirements, it now must be ratified by the U.S. legislature.  By U.S. law that means it takes a two-thirds majority senate vote.

Last winter, your voices helped bring the CRPD to a vote in the Senate, where it disappointingly failed by just five votes.  This summer, the Disability Treaty is to be considered for ratification once again by the U.S. Senate.

Therefore, we must define Hillel’s “what we are” by once again speaking out loudly – this time for those other than ourselves.  We all must educate our communities to write letters, make calls or actually visit senators and tell them, “You must vote YES to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!”

We must especially urge all Republicans to vote “yes” and we must communicate our support of the “yes” leanings of Democrats.

We have many Americans who are “for us” now – Americans with and without disabilities. Let us take their hands.  Lead them to do what’s right.

The Disability Treaty is based on U.S. law.  The United States needs to continue to lead this effort on a global scale. According to UN procedure, the U.S. cannot formally have a leadership place at the table if we do not ratify it.

Those forces that oppose the Convention are small but mighty.  Senators are receiving 100 “anti” letters to one “pro” letter.  Many use unfounded religious reasons for opposition so we need to use our religious voices when we urge our senators to vote “Yes.”

And we must all ask ourselves, “If not now, when?”

Here are 3 easy ways you can help pursue justice for the one billion people around the world who live with a disability:

  1. Email your Senators, and urge those in your community to do the same. If you’d like sermon starters or talking points, let the RAC know.
  2. Your Senator will be home this week for the July 4th recess. Set up a meeting to speak with your Senator by calling his/her office.  To find your senators’ local office information, please go to:    This meeting can have exponentially more effect than an email or a phone call. If you’d like talking points or tips for the meeting, the RAC would be happy to help you out!
  3. The press can amplify your voice. Submit a letter to the editor or an op-ed to your local papers. The Religious Action Center has sample language you can use and can help you place the article as well.

Thank you for your continued support towards equal opportunity and full inclusion for all. With your help, we hope to see our country step up once again to its role as a global civil rights leader.

If you have any questions or for more information, please feel free to email RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Raechel Banks at  or call 202.387.2800 to speak with Raechel.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.