A panel of disability experts called for the Jewish community to create a more inclusive environment for persons with disabilities.

The panel, part of the Jewish Federation of North America’s (JFNA) General Assembly held last week, encouraged groups to abandon old models that encourage separate programs and segregation, and challenged community leaders to find new ways of including people with disabilities into regular programming.

Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Disability Rights International, said he has found that current disability funding often goes to outdated programing that keeps persons with disabilities apart from the Jewish community.

“Many of the people acting out of the principle of hesed, who think they are helping, may indeed be hurting if they perpetuate segregation by giving money to programs that separate people from society who can be part of society,” he said. “We now know all people with disabilities can be part of society.”

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, added that the segregation of persons with disabilities represents a larger issue of how disability is seen without the Jewish world.

“The problem, I think, in general with the Jewish community, is that we look at disability as a fringe issue, as an outside community and not one that’s part of all of us,” he pointed out.

Ruderman, whose charitable trust is a major source of funding for disability programming in the Jewish community, also stressed that by allowing a “community that deals with exclusion,” the Jewish community was turning away young people and others who are motivated by social justice.

“[It] is not an attractive community for younger people to join,” he insisted. “Unless the Jewish community changes its nature and becomes more inclusive, you turn away the people you’re looking to attract.”