Jewish parents often — and rightly — talk about Jewish summer camp as transformative. It’s a place where kids can live immersive Jewish lives, where they can associate Judaism not only with prayer and study but also with fun, with freedom, and with possibility, in a way that is possible only when you’re a teenager and away from home and surrounded by friends and the world is open to you.
As it turns out, that understanding of camp isn’t only for Jews.
The documentary “Crip Camp” traces the paths of disabled campers who spent summers together in the 1970s, in Camp Jened — a happy ramshackle outpost in the Catskills that looks remarkably like the nearby Jewish summer camps — where they were able to live as fully dimensional human beings, defined not by their disabilities but by their entire beings.
Many of those campers grew up to become social justice activists, and their work brought great changes for disabled people (although, like any change, backsliding always is possible).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the campers were Jewish.
Now, as we mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Advocacy and Inclusion Month — more commonly known as February — Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck is offering a Zoom conversation between Jewish disabilities rights activist — and Camp Jened counselor — Judy Heumann and Teaneck-based writer Sandee Brawarsky. (See below.)
As the documentary — which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January and won the audience award there, and whose executive producers are Michelle and Barack Obama, so yes, this film has yichus — shows, Ms. Heumann, who grew up in Brooklyn, had polio when she was a baby. Her mixture of ferocity and warmth as an adult come from the formative experiences she had as an outcast — not being able to walk made her unacceptable at her local public school because she was a fire hazard — and a vigorous member of the groups she found or created for herself.
“The focus of the discussion will be to look at where we are as a Jewish community, and what is our role in advancing the disability justice movement,” Ms. Heumann said. “The Jewish community in particular, and the culture in general, really is just learning about who we are, and what are goals and aspirations are, as well as the kinds of discrimination that disabled people have faced.
“This work is being done both by local and by national organizations. It is because of that work that we have the Americans With Disabilities Act, among other things.” (The ADA, passed in 1990, was one of the issues for which Camp Jened alumni advocated.)
In general, Ms. Heumann said, “from the movement perspective, we have been moving away from the medical model of disability to the justice model. The human rights model.” That means that “medical research on what causes blindness or hearing loss or polio or covid or whatever else you are studying” is important, but “what we are saying is that we are here today.
“Disabled people always will be here, because of war and the environment and many other things. But we want to be able to live our lives today.
“Too frequently, people do not value who we are.
“When we talk as a Jewish community about wanting to enable everyone to participate equally, but we look at those of us with disabilities and think that our main advantage is not to have a disability, that is a problem.
“Take covid as an example. One move forward is to make the right vaccine and then get it into people’s arms, but there will be people who have had covid who might well have disabilities as a result.” (Because covid is so new — it is caused by the novel coronavirus, which is called novel for good reason — no one can know what its long-term effects will be. It’s fairly certain that there will be some.)
“People have to be able not to feel that their lives now are devalued, considered to be of lesser worth, if they do develop disabilities.
“We also have to allow people to own their disabilities not as a negative but as a positive. It is who I am. I don’t want to look at myself as a medical problem. My goal is not to do everything a non-disabled person can do.
“I want to work. I want to live in a community. I want to have a social life. But that doesn’t mean that I have to want to do those things. But it does mean that in architecture, in funding home care services, in day care, in so many areas, society has to be able to look at the role that we play.”
Some disabilities are visible, and others are not, Ms. Heumann said. “I think that many of the issues around disabilities in general are non-disabled people’s perceptions of what having a disability would be. And there is such a broad range.”
Ms. Heumann has had a distinguished career, which includes stints as a disability rights advisor at the World Bank and the State Department, working for presidents Obama and Bill Clinton. She recalls being in India, when someone talked about being a diabetic, which not only is a disability but one that can be hidden and that many people choose to keep private. “Most people do not want to disclose their disabilities,” she said; many have no choice but many others, perhaps more than might seem self-evident, do.
Shame and stigma also are significant drivers of behavior, she added. They often convince people to hide such conditions as depression or other mental health issues. That might be a particular problem now, given how many people are suffering from such issues in response to their lives during the pandemic.
“There are a good number of rabbis who now work with disability rights, and the work that they are doing is very important,” Ms. Heumann said; she thinks that there’s also a group studying how the Talmud treats disabilities.
People often develop disabilities as they age, she said, and they can leave even people who have a strong intellectual understanding of the situation adrift emotionally. “My mother was an amazing advocate for me,” Ms. Heumann said. “But when she developed cancer — my dad already had died — she did not want to go outside in a wheelchair. I remember being completely taken aback by that. But she felt that people would treat her differently if she did.”
Although it’s not necessary to watch “Crip Camp” — it’s on Netflix — or to read Ms. Heumann’s book, the wonderfully titled “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist,” it might make for a better-rounded understanding of the issues, she said.
She plans to have an open discussion of her work at Beth Sholom. “I want people to come with an open mind,” she said. “I definitely have views.” She wants to talk about them.
Who: Jewish disabilities rights advocate Judy Heumann
What: Will ask “How inclusive are we?” in a conversation with journalist Sandee Brawarsky
When: On Tuesday, February 9, from 8:15 to 9:45 p.m.
For whom: Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck
How: On Zoom
How much: Free
To learn more or to register: Go to cbsteaneck.org and follow the link for learning, call (201- 833-2620, or email firstname.lastname@example.org