Atlanta’s own Gail Heyman is being awarded with Matan’s Leadership Award. This honor, presented since 2009, is in recognition of an individual’s efforts in promoting inclusion, respect, dignity, and services to Jewish community members who have disabilities and their families.
Dori Kirshner, Executive Director of Matan, says, “In every community we get to be a part of—whether for a short time or a longer time—there are always a handful of changemakers. They take new people under their wings, they advocate for others, and they look outside their own immediate needs. Gail thinks beyond just her own family; her advocacy doesn’t stop where her family’s needs stop. She isn’t complacent about adhering to the status quo if there’s progress to be made, and she isn’t afraid to blaze new trails.”
Gail is a longtime supporter of Federation and was a member of the disabilities task force that founded Jewish Abilities Atlanta (JAA). She then served on JAA’s advisory committee for several years and was instrumental in their 2020 community study on disability inclusion in Jewish Atlanta, in partnership with Matan. She has been involved with other projects for community members with disabilities, including The Den, a sensory-friendly cabin at Camp Barney Medintz. Her son, Scott (or Scotty), is a familiar face at Camp Barney, having worked in the kitchen for many years.
Gail is an advocate for people with disabilities and their families not only in Jewish Atlanta, but more broadly across communities. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Fragile X Foundation of Georgia and on the advisory board of JScreen, which advocates for genetic screening to identify genetic conditions like Fragile X, among others.
Of the recognition, Gail says, “I am honored to represent JAA and Greater Atlanta Jewish community with this award in recognition of the great strides that we will continue to make for inclusion.”
Dori first met Gail during the pandemic when they were collaborating on the 2020 community study. “Gail reached through the Zoom and grabbed me in both an allyship way, as well as a friend—she made it clear that by joining together in inclusion efforts, we could get more accomplished.” The two stayed in touch, and Dori was blown away by Gail’s passion for advocacy.
Matan, which means “gift,” was founded 23 years ago in the New York metro area as a local direct service organization that supported neurodiverse students at day schools, after school programs, and more. In their first decade, Matan set up Hebrew school options at JCCs across the TriState Area. As day schools and synagogues began expanding accessibility and supporting families, they became a training organization that prepares Education Directors, Teen and Youth Directors, Rabbis, Early Childhood Educators, and more to provide better s and experiences to families and individuals with and without disabilities.
Matan now supports people across the lifespan in all stages of life, “from babies to bubbies.” Dori says we “must have willing partners in the community in order to do this holy work, and Gail is certainly that. She has carried the banner and brought so many new people into the inclusion mindset; she has and will continue to affect change so that everyone is included in Jewish life.”