A Shabbat afternoon Kiddush luncheon often includes laughter, socializing and good food. But how often are tears and paradigm shifting added to the mix? According to participants, that’s exactly what happened at the more than 260 Chabad Houses and synagogues worldwide that recently participated in ShabbaTTogether, which highlighted disability inclusion and mental-health awareness.

“It was an experience unlike any other that I had witnessed,” said participant Dr. George Halasz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, as well as an adjunct senior lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who participated in an event at the Chabad House of Malvern in Melbourne. “As I was listening, at times I thought, ‘Oh, my G‑d, I can’t believe this.’ My reactions shifted between heart-wrenching and heart-melting moments with each speaker.”

More than a dozen congregations in Melbourne took part in the international event, which was preceded by an educational event for clergy sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of Victoria.

The international push to hold the events was coordinated by the RCII (Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative), which is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch communities around the globe to advance the inclusion of people with disabilities in every part of communal life.

“Spiritual inclusion is, and always has been, at the core of Chabad philosophy and practice,” says Rabbi Shmaya Krinsky, executive director of Machne Israel Development Fund and the RCII. “The excitement and motivation of our Chabad House leaders around the world to celebrate ShabbaTTogether has made it clear that physical inclusion of visible and invisible disabilities is part of that same core philosophy.”

In some communities, a single event was held. Others made it part of a series.

The Malvern event was sandwiched between lectures on Judaism and disability inclusion presented by Youth Director Rabbi Reuvi Cooper, whose son, Mendy, age 5, has Angelman syndrome, a complex genetic disorder. Held on the Wednesdays preceding and following the Shabbat program, Cooper wove together a compelling mix of personal observations, inspiration and Torah wisdom.

On Shabbat morning, children and adults who required it were paired with “buddies” to ensure that they would be able to enjoy the experience in the best possible way.

The kiddush was attended by 100 guests who heard from three speakers.

New Policies to Assist Everyone

Mattie Michael is a young man with autism, which gives him considerable communication and speech difficulties that sometimes lead to social isolation. In his talk, he discussed the love and support of his family and the acceptance he has found at Chabad, where he celebrated his bar mitzvah a decade ago.

The next to speak was Tully Zygier, who introduced familial dysautonomia, a genetic condition she described as having affected her ability to walk, her growth, a loss of sensations, and other physical and emotional stresses. Despite the challenges, she attended mainstream schooling, advanced to university, graduated and become an accomplished writer. An advocate for disability services, she described some of her challenges, including the loneliness and frustrations of being repeatedly asked: “What is your condition?”

In response to the question, “How should I approach you?” her advice was direct: “Just say ‘hi,’ and if I like you, we’ll have a chat ... ”

She was followed by the rabbi’s wife, Menucha Cooper, who emceed the luncheon. She highlighted the gifts that Mendy has brought to their family—the inspiration, joy and the unexpected senses of belonging that comes from simple gestures of acceptance.

As a community, the congregation has instituted several new policies and practices to make their center even more welcoming and inclusive.

Sign-up forms and fliers for all events now include a field where people can request accommodations and assistance they may need. It was also decided that an extra push would be made to reach out to adults with disabilities to join the crew of volunteers who cook regularly in the synagogue’s kitchen for charitable purposes. “These are people who are capable and giving,” said Reuvi Cooper. “All we need to do is let them know that we want them, we value their participation, and we will do what it takes to make it work.”

Campus Focus on Silent Disabilities

On many college campuses, there was a decided focus on mental health—a reality that Chabad emissaries say is affecting more and more students every year.

In College Station, Texas, Rabbi Yossi and Manya Lazaroff of the Rohr Jewish Center at Texas A&M University took the opportunity to educate students about a host of mental challenges and what they could do to help themselves or friends in a time of crisis.

For the Lazaroffs, this weekend is the start of a series of programs focused on mental health. Partnering with the Jewish Family Services of Houston, 100 miles to the southeast, they plan to offer training that will include “Mental Health First Aid.”

“There is a very good chance that our students have friends who will be experiencing stress, anxiety or depression,” explains Manya Lazaroff, “We want to empower them to know how they can help them. It is important to have the skills and knowledge to be able to act in a time of need.”

During the course of Shabbat, they held two workshops where they shared tools to overcome stress and anxiety. Afterwards, they held a “Paint Night” where they discussed the Jewish approach to attaining happiness.

“In 2019, we have moved beyond ramps, modified curricula and overcoming other barriers that were prevalent a generation ago. Sure, there is lots to do in those areas as well, but the final frontier that we see is mental health,” says Lazaroff. “The students of today are sensitized to people with physical and obvious cognitive disabilities. Depression and other disorders that are often invisible—those are what we are tackling—we are working together to accommodate so that no one is alone, no one is excluded, and no one falls through the cracks.”