There is no one way to be Jewish.
This is true for everyone, believes Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, but it is the cornerstone of her work to make Judaism more accessible to young people, especially the disabled.
As program director of Jewish Learning Venture and director of JLV’s Whole Community Inclusion, Kaplan-Mayer, 51, has spent the past decade providing guidance to synagogues, parents and Jewish organizations on how to increase accessibility in the Jewish community; champion Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month programming in Philadelphia; and write and publish several books on disability inclusion.
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On June 15, the Covenant Foundation, an organization dedicated to honoring and supporting Jewish educators, announced Kaplan-Mayer as one of three recipients of the Covenant Foundation Award for her commitment to improving accessibility in education. Jewish.
“I felt thrilled that this honor could bring more recognition to our mission at Jewish Learning Venture, both in terms of the work that I conducted around the inclusion of the whole community, but also, I was aware that it could bring that recognition to the bigger agency,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
Originally a merger of Auerbach’s Central Agency for Jewish Education and the Jewish Outreach Partnership, JLV has maintained its roots by giving more young Jews the opportunity to engage in Jewish education, but it has evolved to focus on ways in which Jewish organizations can better provide opportunities for Jewish children on the margins.
Although Kaplan-Mayer has focused on children with disabilities during her time at JLV since 2011, she hopes to expand the organization’s reach to better include Jews of color and young LGBTQ Jews in upcoming jkidPRIDE and jkidforall programs.
Kaplan-Mayer’s foray into the world of Jewish accessibility was a necessity. Working at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in 1998 and at ACAJE from 2001 to 2003, Kaplan-Mayer realized, though well-meaning, that she lacked the skills to fully meet the needs children with disabilities she worked with.
She remembers a child who struggled with his sensory system overwhelmed. He suddenly ran to the bathroom and ran the water to calm himself down. Looking back, Kaplan-Mayer understands that this was a self-soothing activity. But now she knows how to incorporate breaks or provide weighted blankets or other items to help meet student needs.
Her son’s autism diagnosis after he was born in 2003 further propelled Kaplan-Mayer to seek accessibility in Jewish spaces.
“I was like the typical Jewish educator – I had no knowledge!” said Kaplan-Mayer. “And then after my child was diagnosed with autism, and I wanted him to have a Jewish upbringing, I suddenly realized, oh, let’s really give people tools.”
She was able to treat her son George Kaplan-Mayer, 19, to a bar mitzvah celebration meant for him, but she also recognized the different ways people find meaning in Judaism. For George Kaplan-Mayer, the spiritual meaning came from the small moments between the big celebrations.
“The depth of his Jewish life is the daily moments of what Judaism is: you sing a song; you say a prayer; you light the Shabbat candles,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “I knew his intellectual disability didn’t mean he didn’t have a spiritual life.”
The foundation of his work and that of JLV is to meet people where they are. If a young person wants to make challah or latkes for five minutes or listen to a single Jewish song, it can be spiritually fulfilling for them.
“Our spiritual lives are not the same as our intellectual lives,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “Once you understand that, you have much deeper access, I think, to spiritual curiosity.”
Kaplan-Mayer graduated from Emerson College in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and acting. She received her master’s degree from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College at Wyncote in 2001. Although she taught for much of her life, Kaplan-Mayer’s training in divergent thinking through creative writing and “reading the play” through theater gave him the skills to become a leader. at JLV with the organization’s team of educators.
JLV’s focus on creativity has allowed them to be nimble throughout the pandemic; this is what Kaplan-Mayer believes is the key to keeping an open mind and staying true to JLV’s mission.
“As human beings, we put huge limits on what we can do,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “Thank God creativity comes, or maybe creativity is, by God.”