by Gabby Kaplan-Mayer, Director, Whole Community Inclusion

“These are the most amazing teens!”

I say the same thing every year when Jewish Learning Venture Associate Director Elana Rivel asks me how the first part of our Reta Emerson Fellowship/Teen Assistant program (TAP) training went.

The truth is–each of the four years that I’ve led the program (masterfully created by my predecessor Debbie Gettes), I meet an amazing group of teenagers–impressive because of their maturity, compassion and desire to learn in depth about learning and developmental disabilities. These teens are making a year-long commitment to be trained and also to work every week in their congregational schools where they will support students who, without assistance, might not be able to attend school.

In 2013, we added a community leadership component to the Reta Emerson Fellowship to provide our teens with the opportunity to interact with people with a range of abilities in a variety of Jewish settings. TAP teens have assisted children at our jkidphilly sensory-friendly events, hung out with teens with disabilities at YACHAD parties, and helped support adults at JFCS IN-JOY holiday programs. In both congregational school and community settings, the TAP teens become more confident as friends and advocates for inclusion in our Jewish community. When they reflect on their own feelings about disability, they simultaneously grow in their comfort in relating to people of every ability, and gain a heightened awareness that every human being, regardless of physical or intellectual differences, is created in the image of God.

TAP teens perform holy work. With all of the social and academic pressures they regularly endure, I think that I am justified to call those who make the commitment to do this work “amazing.” But don’t take my word for it–check out our TAP blog and read for yourself what these teens have to say about their experiences!