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Independence and Inclusion for People with Disabilities

In this week’s parsha, Balak, we learn about the prophet Balaam who is sent to curse the Israelites. Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam does the opposite, saying “Mah tovu — How goodly are your tents, Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel.” This week, we are featuring a Chicago-based organization that embodies this by providing “dwelling places” and other services for people with disabilities in the Jewish community.

Read our interview below with Libenu’s Co-founder and Executive Director, Shana Erenberg, Ph.D. 

What is the mission of Libenu?

Libenu’s mission is to provide residential, vocational, and respite opportunities for people with disabilities to live with dignity and respect, as fully included members of their community.

Why did you decide to start Libenu?

Libenu was born out of personal and professional relationships between the founders and the families of our clients, which provided a window into their daily struggles, challenges, and fears for the future of their children with developmental disabilities. The initiative was driven by Libenu’s consuming passion to change the landscape for people with disabilities and provide peace of mind for their families by creating a secure future for their children in a warm, supportive Jewish environment. Libenu was founded to address critical, urgent, and unmet needs of Jewish children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities including: Community-based, kosher housing; vocational training and employment opportunities; meaningful day programming for clients who are not work-ready; inclusive social and recreational programming with typical peers; respite care to relieve the stress and demands faced by families with younger children with disabilities; community education to raise awareness and sensitivity; social justice and advocacy to eliminate misperceptions about disabilities and discrimination, and to promote an equitable future for our clients; family engagement and support.

What’s a story about your organization that is meaningful to you?

One of the most touching Libenu stories happened the day our ladies moved into their new home. The day was bustling and frenetic, with the women moving in and unpacking their belongings. Amidst the activity, I glanced over to the couch in the living room and saw E, a young woman with Down Syndrome, using sign language to communicate with H, a resident who was nonverbal. I sat down next to them and asked E where she learned to sign. E explained that when she was younger, she was unable to speak and her mother taught her to sign. She wanted to reach out to H to make her feel at home and alleviate her fears. Soon all of the ladies gathered around and asked E to teach them a few signs so that they too could engage with H. It was at that moment I realized that Libenu is so much more than bricks and mortar – we are a caring community and family.

How would you connect your organization to a Jewish text or value?

As an organization that seeks social justice, equality, opportunity, and inclusion for people with disabilities, Libenu is connected to the verse in Parshat Shoftim “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” – “ Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” We are also deeply rooted in the philosophical belief that All of Israel is Responsible for One Another and that we must take care of the most vulnerable members. At Libenu, we believe that each one of our residents is like a jewel in a crown, precious and beautiful. Although the jewels are diverse, each one is an integral part of that crown. If one jewel falls out, just one, the integrity of the entire crown is diminished in value. That is how we view our community. If we lose one family because we could not provide service for their child, our entire community is diminished in value.

Who has inspired you in the work that you are doing?

I am truly inspired by the individuals we serve. They face each day with innumerable challenges that most of us do not fully understand, but always manage to give their all, day in and out.

What has surprised you about working with your organization?

I was surprised by the extent of the need for residential, vocational, and respite services in our community and across the country. (If you don’t live in Chicago where Libenu is based, check and see what exists in your community.)

What’s the best part of your job and why?

The best part of my job is watching our clients grow, thrive, and become more independent. It is incredibly rewarding to know that Libenu has been the catalyst for this change in their lives and in the community at large.

What are some non-monetary ways for others to get involved in your organization or cause?

There are many ways to get involved with Libenu. We welcome volunteers to cook or bake with our residents, play music, make jewelry, paint, garden, and more. Libenu residents also love to be included in community events, so if you are hosting events or get-togethers, consider inviting our folks.


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