• On June 28th, not far from the walls of the old City, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, 800 young adults, volunteers, and professionals attended the conference titled “Social responsibility: advancing the contributions and public service of young adults with disabilities.” Three leading non-profit organizations, Bema’aglei Tzedek, Gvanim, and Bat Ami, joined together to further the rights and civic duties of individuals with disabilities and to advocate for full societal integration through their contributions.

    The conference began with discussion groups studying passages from the Mishnah and Talmud related to the topic of disabilities. One of the group leaders, Omer Nachum, a young adult with disabilities fulfilling his national service duty through Gvanim’s Hed program in Yokneam, concluded the opening discussion circle, “There is a desire to change the perception – to foster a society that accepts disabilities. It is okay to have disabilities; there is no need to hide them only to accept them.”

    Later in the evening, lectures discussed issues such as people with disabilities in public service, volunteering as a tool for empowering youth, halakhic challenges and more. Among the lecturers were Yoav Kareem, spokesmen for the disabled, Yichiel Sharshevsky, head of mental health rehabilitation at the Ministry of Health, and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow from the Tzohar organization.  Hanoch Daum and Ariel Hartman, co-authors of the book, Mind the Road, lead a discussion titled, “Who are you calling disabled?” The discussion brought up important dilemmas, like the tension between accepting a person’s disabilities and encouraging achievement. Where do you draw the line? When should you support a person with disabilities and when should you challenge him or her to action?  In the words of Ariel Hartman, a psychologist, “The most dramatic element of treating a person with disabilities is recognizing our own disabilities. If we define our limits and our imperfections, we are also able to accept the limitations of others.” Ariel Hartman noted the importance for people with psychological damage to leave the house and be part of society. Hartman spoke about the amazing example Daum is setting as a successful man with Tourette’s syndrome.

    During the remainder of the evening, everyone gathered together to hear stories of the young volunteers. Achia Kamara, a representative for equal rights for people with disabilities in the Justice Department, spoke about his experience with what he calls the “public transportation social hierarchy”, referencing people’s fear of sitting on the bus next to a person with disabilities. Nadav, age 25, who works today as an assistant guide at the Knesset, spoke excitedly about his national service, serving at the National Library archives on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, “I chose to do national service, to volunteer, and to contribute to the state…My service made me feel like everyone else. Despite my disability,       I am not alone; I have found a community outside of my family.”

    The conference was attended by a forum of organizations working to advance national service for marginalized populations. The forum included Ma’ase, Appleseeds Academy, Centers for Young Adults – JDC Israel and the Gandyr Foundation, and the social studies program at Beit Morasha.

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