Lisa Gurko, 17, found her passion when she joined her city’s chapter of JDC’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network and began participating in the FreeDom project, an AJT initiative that serves teens with special needs. For Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM), we share Lisa’s thoughts on how Jewish values overlap with the struggle for disabilities inclusion and education.
JDC’s Active Jewish Teens was founded in 2014 and is powered by a founding partnership with BBYO and partnerships with Genesis Philanthropy Group and other supporters.
When it comes to understanding people with special needs, we are only just beginning. How do we ensure that people with disabilities lead dignified lives? What does inclusion look like? And what will it take for people with disabilities to feel included, equal, and free?
These questions guide my life. I began asking them when I began attending events at the JDC-supported Migdal Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Odessa, Ukraine, where I live. What I’ve learned since joining is that being Jewish isn’t just about religion. It’s about family and how we stand up for each other. We can’t leave anyone behind just because they are different — we must be fearless, compassionate, and fully who we are.
What I’ve learned from AJT’s FreeDom project, which integrates kids with special needs into AJT activities in many cities across the former Soviet Union (FSU), is that we must stand courageously in our identities. In that sense, this work has also taught me something about being Jewish. The history of Jewish life in the FSU is wrapped up in secrecy. When my mother was 13, she wanted to buy a necklace with a cross, just like the ones her friends wore around their necks. She couldn’t understand why her family wouldn’t let her — after all, she didn’t know she was Jewish. Later, when she went to her brother and shouted with arms crossed, defiant: “I’m getting a necklace!”, he told her the truth.
Times have changed. Now, people live their Judaism openly — people like my uncle, who works at the local synagogue. My family tries to keep kosher, and I have been involved with the Jewish community here in Odessa since birth. I went to a Jewish kindergarten, and then the Jewish elementary school. I was taught to embrace my Judaism from the moment I entered this world.
My mother inspired me to join AJT, where I was just elected co-president. As soon as I joined, I realized that I belonged here: These were my people, Jewish teens who wanted to make a real difference in their community. I knew AJT was the place where I could develop myself and give back what had been given to me, paying it forward to help my community. We could also have fun, too. I love to play ukulele, keyboard, and watch movies. At Migdal JCC, we’d often organize movie nights, and it brought us closer together.
As AJT co-president, I have so many exciting plans. I want to create a group for AJT alumni. Though AJT is designed for younger teenagers, it makes such an impact on all of us — and that doesn’t go anywhere just because someone turns 18. I also want to start a “Projects Chat,” where AJT members across the FSU can share their work and learn from each other. And, of course, I want to develop and expand the FreeDom project and other amazing initiatives, like AJT Torah and AJT Travel.
I am fearless and bold about my Judaism; I want to spark that same courage in people with special needs.
I am fearless and bold about my Judaism, and I want to spark that same courage in my peers with special needs through FreeDom. Eventually, I want to work with kids who have disabilities. That’s also why FreeDom is so important to me — it gives me experience honing my skills in a career I’m passionate about pursuing.
It’s a sad fact, but the number of kids with congenital disabilities is growing. I attend the Teachers’ Training College here in Odessa, and I know there used to be fewer children with special needs. I’m hopeful that further advances in inclusive education, like AJT has pioneered with FreeDom, will continue to take root in Ukraine.
Full inclusion is a long process: We need time. Inclusive education is a powerful tool that promotes understanding between students with special needs and students without them. The children learn to live together, play together, and see each other as equals. My college curriculum has allowed me to work at an inclusive kindergarten, and I see how strong the relationships are between so-called “normal” kids and their classmates with special needs. My work, like my involvement with AJT, gives me hope.
When I think about what FreeDom has made possible, I see Julia, a girl I met through FreeDom. Before joining the program, she would only speak to her parents. Her world was narrow and confined, and she was scared of other people. FreeDom transformed her into someone who is eager to talk. No words exist that can accurately describe what I felt when she first spoke to me — and all she said was, “Hi, Lisa!”
I was overwhelmed, seeing her life begin. With those words — just a simple greeting! — she had discovered language, and with it, a power all her own. I thought about all the words she would say in the days and weeks to come, and all the silences and stigmas she would break.
FreeDom opened that door for Julia, and she walked right through it, into a world where she could feel … well, free.
In that sense, she’s taught me something, too.
As the newest co-president of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), Odessa native Lisa Gurko, 17, works with special needs clients through AJT’s FreeDom project.