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Stories of hope and connection animate Hillel’s Jewish Disability Advocacy Month

by Brianna Kovit | Feb 25, 2021 |
Brandon Farbstein

“Maybe you don’t know what it is like to be 3-foot-9, but you can relate to the feeling of being invisible or unworthy,” said Brandon Farbstein to a virtual Zoom room of Hillel @ Home students. Farbstein is a 21-year-old motivational speaker, activist, author, and one of only 84 people in medical history diagnosed with metatropic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism.

On Feb. 9, Hillel @ Home hosted Farbstein in the first of several virtual events honoring Jewish Disability Advocacy Month. Observed each February, Jewish Disability Advocacy Month is a worldwide Jewish effort to promote education, awareness, and inclusion of people with disabilities. Throughout the month, Farbstein and other speakers engaged with hundreds of Hillel students about the intersections of Judaism and disability and the importance of inclusion.

While “Ten-Feet Tall: Elevating Empathy with Brandon Farbstein” encouraged students to lead their lives with empathy for themselves and others, the Feb. 18 event “Fighting Stigma with Effective Storytelling,” led by comedian Pamela Schuller, put that empathy to the test. The event, which was organized by the Jewish Federation of North America in partnership with both BBYO and Hillel International, was a storytelling workshop. The evening began with Schuller leading a brainstorming session, with questions such as “What was a time in your life that you were most inspired?” and “What was a time in your life that you were really upset?”

Schuller shared a story of her own, about the time she connected with a young boy who was being bullied for his Tourette’s syndrome on a New York City subway car. Schuller too has Tourette’s syndrome.

“It wasn't a particularly meaningful conversation. We just shared stories and we laughed,” said Schuller recalling the encounter. “About 15 minutes later, his [subway] stop arrived… and I was flooded with the hope that when he looks back on that day, he doesn’t remember someone videotaping him to laugh at him or make fun of him but instead remembers having something pretty cool in common with a stranger on the subway.”

With that story on their minds, participants were given several minutes of free writing time and were then separated into breakout rooms to share their own stories.

“When you meet people in a breakout room and you find out what their stories are, that’s how you get to know them better,” said Anthony Rubin, President of the College of Staten Island Hillel and a co-facilitator of the event. Rubin was also previously a member of the Hillel Ruderman Inclusion Ambassadorship, an internship for students to learn skills and gain knowledge to engage diverse students and bring an inclusion-informed lens to their Hillels. “I thought it was amazing. I had a great group of people in my breakout room talking about their stories, and [I spoke] about my story. It felt really good.”

With February almost behind us, there are still great stories yet to come.

From 1:00-2:00pm ET on Feb. 28, Hillel @ Home will be hosting “A Conversation with Israeli Paralympic Athletes,” featuring Noam Gershony, Moran Samuel, and Achiya Klein. The panelists will discuss living as world-class Paralympic athletes and their experiences as Jewish people with disabilities.

From 8:00-9:00pm ET on March 2, internationally recognized disability rights activist Judy Heumann will host a conversation about her experience leading a 28-day sit-in that led to the signing of the first disability civil rights legislation.

“She’s probably one of the most important disability activists that the country has ever had,” said Naomi Hess, a Hillel student at Princeton University. Last summer, Hess participated in an internship with the American Association of People with Disabilities for which Heumann is a board member. She was solely responsible for securing Heumann as a Jewish Disability Advocacy Month speaker for the Hillel @ Home series. “I’m so excited that I will be moderating a discussion with her,” says Hess.

Registration is still open for the remaining Jewish Disability Advocacy Month events and can be found at https://welcome.hillel.org/hillelathome/.





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