There’s strength in numbers, says Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. That’s why last year the NJSAJF convened a statewide working group devoted to special needs in the Jewish community.
“It arose out of the fact that the interest of the Jewish community in special needs services and programs keeps growing statewide,” he said. “There were many voices speaking through existing organizations – but being in this job and knowing the effect of unified advocacy, I felt it was important that the Jewish community have some sort of mechanism to speak with one voice.
“We won’t agree on everything, but we’ll have a forum to discuss the issues and see where we want to take the most effective stands.”
First and foremost, Toporek said, the working group provides an opportunity for its members to sit down together and talk. After that, he hopes, the group will set an agenda.
The 43-member coalition includes delegates from agencies and organizations all over the state. Our local area is well represented, said Joy Kurland, a group member who is director of the Jewish Community Relations Commission of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
In addition to Kurland, the original working group included Sharyn Gallatin, formerly JFNNJ’s point person on disabilities, who has now moved to Detroit. Kurland said that Gallatin had been active in bringing community concerns to state and county legislators and served as a member of the Jewish Federation of North America’s Domestic Affairs Disability Work Group.
Representatives from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the YJCC of Bergen County, and Jewish Family Services in Bergen and North Hudson, North Jersey, and Clifton also are included. Chani Herrman of Yachad has a seat at the table, as does Dr. John Winer of the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities.
Ruth Cole of Ridgewood, now in her third term as president of the state association, serves on the group as well.
Cole says it is precisely because there are so many groups interested in special needs that the NJSAJF formed the coalition.
“When you have so many groups dealing [with the issue], especially from the Jewish perspective, it’s important to maximize your efforts,” she said, adding that collaboration helps prevent duplication of efforts and “makes sure that dollars are spent as wisely as possible.”
A trained counselor who is also a former president of the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, Cole said she understands the requirements of the special needs community and that working on this issue interests her as both a lay leader and a professional.
She said that one area the working group will explore is housing, pointing to the need for more group homes.
While the coalition has not yet targeted specific areas for advocacy, she said, it is nevertheless engaged in “fact-finding and sharing experiences.” Its next step will be to “come to a meeting of the minds on important priorities.”
So far, the working group has had three meetings. One was with the executive directors of ARC, which advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, which works to improve the lives of people with complex physical and neurological developmental disabilities.
“We wanted to get a feeling for the specific state budget agenda,” Toporek said, noting that the group already has weighed in on the replenishment of the special needs housing trust fund.
Early in the fall, NJSAJF will hold another meeting to explore specific pieces of legislation.
“There could be twenty or twenty-five laws” to consider, Toporek said. “We have to decide which is important, rather than using the shotgun approach. In the meantime, we’re also a resource for information.”
Kurland said the JCRC has been working in the area of special needs for years, pointing out that several years ago Gallatin had presented an agenda of special needs issues at a legislative gathering convened by the federation.
Among the issues presented for consideration were the need for a greater Division of Developmental Disabilities presence in the catchment area, enhanced services for children and seniors, increased job opportunities, available housing, and more accessible transportation. Kurland said she later presented that agenda at one of the NJSAFJ meetings.