Celebrating Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month

I recently finished reading Ora Horn Prouser’s book Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs.  While the book focuses mainly on Esau’s story, several other characters from the Bible are portrayed. Prouser has an interesting take on some of the most well known stories in the Bible and her book is just one example of the many strides forward the Jewish community has made regarding inclusion.

In the final days of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, I would like to share my appreciation for all the Jewish organizations that have helped propel dance4empowerment forward over the past few years. I have been very fortunate to have been introduced to and involved with several incredible programs, organizations, foundations, and people working to foster inclusive communities and provide equal opportunities for people of all abilities.

After my first introduction to people with disabilities at Camp Ramah New England through their unique Tikvah program, my passion for inclusion was immediately sparked and, since, I have continued to seek out opportunities to work with people with disabilities.  I am proud to have been a volunteer at Gateways for three years; working one on one with an amazing teenager who was passionate about his Jewish identity.  Watching him grow and develop over the many Sunday mornings we spent together, was one of the most influential and inspiring experiences of my life. Additionally, I am grateful to three amazing organizations in Israel that I visited two years ago that continue to inspire me with all the work that they do.  My visits to Beit Issie Shapiro, SHALVA, and ALEH: Jerusalem, were significant in teaching me the power of motivation and patience.  Each organization plays an important role in making Israel a more inclusive and accessible place for people with disabilities and are models for others around the world. Although they are oversees, I have made strong connections with each organization and always look forward to visiting them when I’m in Israel.

Lastly, I want to thank the Jewish organizations and people in Boston who have taught me valuable lessons, crucial to the success of dance4empowerment.  From Gann Academy, the pluralistic Jewish high school I attended, to the Diller Teen Fellowship, which I participated in as a sophomore when the idea for dance4empowerment was elevated, I have been supported and encouraged by these communities. Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Ruderman Family Foundation have been enthusiastic about the work I am doing and have been incredible mentors.  And, I would be remiss if I did not thank Massachusetts State Representative Kay Khan for her meaningful guidance and encouragement.

More recently, since coming to Emory University, I have found incredible support in Hillel International’s Social Startup Fellowship.  I am so proud to be a member of many diverse and important Jewish communities and I am thankful for the role that each and every one has played in teaching and inspiring me.

And, so, it is with all these organizations and people in mind that I am excited to celebrate Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and to be fostering the inclusion of people with disabilities through dance.  I hope that through dance4empowerment, I can continue to make an impact on the inclusiveness of the Jewish community. With each new step let us hope that Jewish communities around the world will continue to become more inclusive and celebrate their members’ many abilities!

Dance, move, and empower,

Sierra

From Gann Academy Happenings: Gann Senior Leads Charge in Dance Therapy Program

 

I’m honored to share this article that Gann Academy posted earlier today about dance4empowerment and my involvement with people with disabilities.  Thank you Gann for your ongoing support! 

Dance, move, and empower,

Sierra

 

In between college applications and dance classes, Sierra Weiss ’14 is a committed volunteer, a State House intern and President/Founder of dance4empowerment.

dance4empowerment — a non-profit organization that develops dance programs for people with disabilities and funds inclusive art programs in Boston — was born through experience as a camper and counselor-in-training at Camp Ramah in New England, support from mentors and peers at Gann Academy, and a deep passion for dance and its therapeutic nature.
 
In her second to last year as a camper at Camp Ramah, Weiss participated in an elective that allowed her to contribute to the Tikvah program, a full overnight camp experience for Jewish children with disabilities. “I found them to be very inspiring, and very humbling,” says Weiss. “I really wanted to give back to the Tikvah campers at Ramah for sharing so much with me.”
 
Gann Academy was very supportive of her newfound interest. In her junior year at Gann, she participated in the Academy’s Exploration Week — a week to learn outside of the traditional classroom through planned national or local trips. Gann gave Weiss the flexibility to create her own trip, during which she traveled to Israel to learn more about the pioneer foundations available for Israeli children with disabilities. That same year, she did an Independent Research and Design (IRaD) project on the genetics of Down’s syndrome. “I was interested in learning more of the genetic background of people with disabilities, and I think that it was really amazing that Gann gave me the opportunity to further my studies and understanding of the students I was working with,” she says.
 
A dancer at Joanne Langione Dance Center in Newton since seventh grade, Weiss decided the best way to empower her Tikvah campers was through a dance program. “Because dance is such a therapeutic time for me, giving me time to reflect on my week, express myself, have fun, and make new connections I wanted to bring dance to Ramah,” she says.
 
As a counselor-in-training, she organized for a dance therapist to spend two days teaching a therapy program to the campers. The dance therapist cancelled last minute. “I think it may have turned out for the better,” she says. The change of plans allowed her to work with a dance instructor at Camp Ramah and teach the Tikvah campers a dance to be performed in front of the entire camp.
 
After her first successful program at Camp Ramah and her experiential learning through Gann, Weiss says she met with several mentors, cemented her idea and goals, and decided to incorporate as a non-profit. Today, dance4empowerment is a vision that supports existing programs, like the Tikvah program and Gateways Access to Jewish Life in Newton. At Gateways, a Sunday school program for individuals with disabilities, she volunteers weekly, leading movement programs in a ten-student classroom. She hopes to soon double the size of the Gateways program and expand into a second ten-student classroom.
 
“I had the pleasure of getting to know Sierra when she sought out an internship with the Ruderman Family Foundationand eventually worked for us this past summer,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the organization. “Rarely do I meet a young person with the drive, focus and entrepreneurial spirit as I found in Sierra [and] I was continually impressed by her and believe she will have many successes in life.”
 
After her college applications are drafted, perfected, and mailed out, Weiss says she’ll have more time to create additional partnerships for dance4empowerment—one of which she hopes will be Joanne Langione Dance Center. “We have a huge recital every year in June, and I think it’d be really amazing if there were more students with disabilities performing,” she says. “It would give them something to be proud of and something to look forward to.”