Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Jewish Residential Living:
The Jewish Foundation for Group Homes
The Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) is a nonprofit organization with 18 residential homes and 44 apartments in suburban Washington, D.C. that provide community residential services, and enhanced independent living skills, for adults with disabilities. The organization also makes it possible for those using its residential services, 80 percent of whom are Jewish, to live in a Jewish environment in a kosher home.
Many of the Jewish residents of JFGH group homes have had limited religious education and experiences in their early years. While some grew up with Jewish traditions within their families – such as holiday celebrations, some synagogue attendance for religious services, and formal religious education and Bar or Bat Mitzvah – not all come from Jewish families that observed the traditions. In addition, observant families may have found it difficult to find a proper religious educational setting for their child with a disability. Now, these individuals are living in homes that have kosher kitchens, and they are regularly participating in Jewish holiday celebrations and life cycle events.
In each home, Shabbat (Sabbath) is welcomed on Friday evenings with the lighting of candles and blessing of grape juice and hallah (braided bread). In some, the residents are able to lead the blessings by themselves, and in others the direct care staff recite them from translations or transliterations. Over 90 percent of the direct care staff in the JFGH residential settings are not Jewish, which makes it necessary for nearly all of them to be educated in various aspects of Jewish living. The Jewish Living Coordinator and Committee of JFGH provide a bridge between the staff and Jewish traditions through required staff training, and members of the committee serve as mentors to each home, providing an ongoing personal contact and guidance. In addition, recognizing that staff cannot do it all, JFGH relies heavily on ongoing support from volunteers and congregations, and has a full-time volunteer director. Holiday celebrations are a particularly busy time. Volunteers come to the homes to help prepare special foods connected with the holiday, or the residents go to a synagogue to work with the members. For example, every group home has a sukkah (booth for the Feast of Tabernacles) built by residents with the help of volunteers.
Residents are also actively involved in the larger Jewish community. They are recognized and greeted at community gatherings and at the Jewish Community Center by the volunteers they’ve met in their homes. Each year residents volunteer alongside staff at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington Super Sunday Dial-a-thon fundraiser, helping to support the larger community. Group home residents have gone on missions to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation; they are full participants in the tour, returning home with a greater appreciation of Israel and, at the same time, giving the other participants a chance to know them as persons first. And residents of several homes regularly attend synagogue services where they participate fully in the services.
One congregation especially involved in facilitating the inclusion of people with disabilities in the larger Jewish community is Shaare Tefila in Silver Spring. The religious school and synagogue have an emphasis on being part of a community within Judaism, and express that in a variety of ways. Within its own religious school, it serves a number of students with disabilities who are integrated into the regular education setting. The school’s post-confirmation class (11th–12th grade) has been particularly involved with JFGH residents, spending time in the homes at holidays talking with them about Hanukkah and the idea of religious freedom, and about Purim and the importance of standing up for what you believe. Several times a year group home residents share Shabbat dinner with the congregation, giving residents and staff the opportunity to experience the meal in a larger community context. The congregation also set aside a regular morning service to focus especially on the participation of persons with disabilities, inviting the president and executive director of JFGH to speak, and involving residents in the reading of the Haftorah (selection from the prophets chanted in Hebrew) and the leading of Hebrew and English prayers and other honors. And when a new group home opened nearby, the congregation raised funds to purchase equipment for its kosher kitchen, as well as Judaica, and welcomed residents to the community and to participation in all congregational activities.
Shaare Tefila is one of many congregations in the Greater Washington area that involves adults with developmental disabilities in all aspects of their programming. With increased contact comes increased comfort as people get to know each other as individuals. A number of the JFGH residents have become formal members of congregations of their choice and speak proudly of their rabbi and cantor. During the annual Mitzvah (performing good deeds) Community Service days held by congregations, the residents of the group homes perform community service along with everyone else, contributing to making the community a better place.