Beyond the Mitzvah: Open Up Your Circle of Friends by Yael Zelinger

My name is Yael and I am good at teaching Sign Language. I am not so good at shooting hoops. What are you good at and what are you not so good at?

We all have things that we are good at and things that we are not so good at. While the US government imprints millions and trillions of quarters and they all look exactly the same, every single human being that ever lived on this blessed earth looks and acts differently, has different opinions and invokes different perspectives. 

You might think, “It’s great that we all look different,” because everyone craves individuality; the stout accessory industry is testimony to that. But I want to assert that it’s also ideal that we all have different opinions and capabilities. Just like I don’t want everyone to look like me, I also don’t want everyone to have the exact same skills and flaws as I do. After all, where would the NBA be?!

How does this relate to people with disabilities? Approximately 20% of the population has a disability. That means 1 out of every 5 people. If you are connected to more than 5 people then you are connected to the community of people with disabilities.

Although I trust that most families try to raise their children with the mantra to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and show children to be nice, share, take turns and not call people names, applying this generic lesson to people with disabilities is

I believe that we need intentional lessons, I like to call them experience, that convey an appreciation of people with disabilities and what they have to offer. If we don’t include all children, the rest of the class is losing out on what each child has to offer. We are all good at some things and not so good at other things. This does not mean we all have a disability. It does mean that I don’t want to be known as, “that lady who can’t shoot a basket for beans,” I’d much rather be referred to as, “the lady who taught us some cool signs.” It means that when we need to come up with a creative poster for our science project, I want that artistic girl who happens to be deaf in my group. It means that when we need someone to sing our Color War theme song, that girl who rocks back and forth and does not make eye contact but has an awesome voice, would be perfect on our team.

The word “disabilities“ often conjures up scary, curious or medical associations. I recently visited with a group of middle schoolers at the culmination of their unit on disabilities. This is what some of them shared in unsolicited letters of reflection,

“I researched Tay-sachs disease… When you came to my class… (you) gave me a whole new perspective of looking past the disability to what is good about them…”

“My mother’s first cousin has special needs. I used to be petrified of him, but now I realize that he is just a boy who wants so badly to be like everyone else. I feel that you should never judge a book by its cover because you never know what is inside these special people.”

“The disability that I researched was cystic fibrosis…I think the game we played explained it very well. Before you came, I was very skeptical about people with disabilities. Now I know how to interact with them better, and I can be friendlier.”

If we can have a discussion in school or work place about the tremendous potential and accomplishments of people who look, act, walk or communicate differently than we do, we can create an environment that truly includes people with all different abilities. Look beyond the mitzvah and include a person with a disability because of what he or she adds to our team, our group project, to our staff. He or she might even make a good friend!


The Macks Center for Jewish Education and Towson University are teaming up to conduct a research study on the effects of intentional disability awareness workshops on the attitudes and behaviors of Jewish middle school students. To be part of it or to book a B’More Inclusive Experience for your class, staff or bunk, contact

Yael Zelinger
Coordinator, JADE: Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education
Associate, Special Education
410 - 735 - 5023
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 9-2

CJE is an agency funded by THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.