I’ve written many stories and editorials over the course of many years about stigma and the hard but necessary work of destigmatization.
Most of the time, it’s about the Sinai Schools, the extraordinary educational institution that tailors an individual education to each child who has an intellectual or developmental disability that would make a more generic approach less likely to work. Sinai nestles its programs inside pre-existing day schools, thus enriching the lives of both its students and the larger school’s.
I also often write about Yachad, the Orthodox Union initiative that works with children, teens, and adults with disabilities, offering them the same kind of personalized attention that each one deserves, allowing everyone to thrive.
Both those amazing organizations have figured out how to destigmatize intellectual and developmental disabilities, to open everyone’s eyes to the marvelous individuality that is at the core of each one of us, to make it socially acceptable to spend time and even be friends with someone unlike yourself.
And in South Orange, working with an overlapping but different population, there’s JESPY House, understanding the same truths.
JESPY House is only for adults — you have to be at least 18 to use it. And although it’s a Jewish organization at its heart, its clients don’t have to be Jewish, and many aren’t.
All these institutions stress inclusion; you don’t have to be just like everyone else to be included. Differences don’t exclude you; your humanity brings you in.
JESPY’s added emphasis on cultural inclusion makes it vibrant; its nonchalant acceptance of difference makes it visually compelling. On a recent visit to Independence House, as the house lead, Rabia El-Hamyani, who wears a headscarf, talked about her work, she casually stood under the mezuzah on the entrance to the living room.
It’s important to say that this is not a pose. She didn’t stand there to make a point; it’s just that it’s a Jewish organization, and its executive director, Audrey Winkler, is Jewish; Rabia is Muslim, many of its employees are Black, as is its president, Dr. Ahadi Bugg-Levine. None of this is for show, or to make a political point. It’s because the desire to work with people, to help people, transcends other divisions.
Just about everyone I talked to at JESPY stressed the importance of listening to people. Actually listening. Not doing what many of us do much of the time — vaguely noticing that someone else’s mouth is moving, and waiting for that motion to stop before starting to talk. That’s not real listening.
But when you listen to people — actually listen to them, hear their words, and let them register — then you can talk. And then, maybe, you can help. And certainly you can learn.