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Jewish Disability Awareness Month

I had a wonderful meeting with a man named Mark Crenshaw last month. Mark is the former director of the Interfaith Disability Network. Mark told me a story of how he was leaving a church that he was visiting with his wife and how impressed he was that the pastor was at the door wishing everybody a good day. To each and every person, the pastor asked, “What is your name and what do you do?” Mark saw this interaction as touching and thoughtful. When the pastor got to his wife, he asked her, “What is your name and what you do?” His wife of course answered. When Mark approached for his turn to greet the pastor, Mark, a man who lives with disability, who has led a nonprofit organization, who has a Masters of Divinity degree from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, and who is the Director of Interdisciplinary Training at the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University… To Mark, the pastor commented, “it’s a nice day out, isn’t it?”

Mark told me the story because he was trying to illustrate how inclusion is not just about offering a special program for people who feel excluded, such as those who live with disabilities. Inclusion is about providing a safe and welcoming space for all – for people with all kinds of abilities.

Sometimes we need to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to connect without worry or concern for being looked at funny or being shushed. For the very first time, Temple Beth Tikvah is going to offer a sensory friendly Shabbat service on Friday night, February 21 at 6:30 PM. I am thrilled to be presenting this in collaboration with the Disability Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. This is going to be a great learning experience for our congregation. I hope our friends will come, not because “they need it,” but because we will all be able to learn a little bit more about the spiritual and communal needs of people with disabilities and those who love them. If we really mean that we are “a warm and welcoming congregation,” then we have to learn how to open our tents wide enough so that all who choose to can enter and feel at home. Being an accessible congregation means that we have to move “beyond the ramp” and encourage people with disabilities that they are welcome. We can tell our friends, family and neighbors that this service will be open to all and I hope all who are committed to inclusion will come and pray and share together.

Collector of Bedford St Film EventI am just as excited for us to host a short film and discussion. This 30 minute film is called, “The Collector of Bedford Street.” It is about a developmentally disabled man who is, frankly, just extraordinary. We witness the goodness he brings out in others as he helps raise money for different causes – despite the fact that he is poor and vulnerable himself. Our discussion will address themes like the gifts we can share with one another, how a community takes care of its neighbors, how one person can make a difference, and how every single person has a gift to offer another. Please look at the information in this newsletter about this program on Thursday, February 13 at 7:30 PM; please RSVP at rsvp@bethtikvah.com.

These two endeavors are part of the efforts of a new working group at Temple Beth Tikvah. This Inclusion Task Force is assessing the needs of our community to be more inclusive of people with disabilities and different abilities. We look forward to put together our thoughts and plans to present to our Board of Trustees in the near future. If you have an interest in getting involved in such a group, please write directly to me.

I do believe, without exception, that every single human being is created in God’s image. If that is truly the case, then we need to open our hearts and our eyes to the needs of so many who feel like they are on the periphery or just left out of the Jewish community. I think that if we open our tents wide, not only will we provide spiritual nourishment to people who are often forgotten, but we will be enriched by doing so.

Regarding our Sensory Friendly Shabbat Service: there will be a social story to prepare a child for entering into the sanctuary; there will be a safe room for anyone who needs to walk around and stretch or draw in our Oneg Room; there will be a section of the sanctuary where the lights will be lowered; there will be no “shushing”; there will be a sign language interpreter. To see a social story to prepare your child, click here. To RSVP for this Shabbat experience, please contact disabilities@jfga.org.

For more information about what is going on in Atlanta for Jewish Disability Awareness Month, click here.

This blog post struck a real chord with me. I hope all of those who are committed to the Jewish values of inclusion, accessibility, and human dignity read this piece from a colleague that I do not yet know.
The sad thing is…I have had this taste of rejection. My daughter with Autism has been welcomed and included at URJ Camp Coleman. They have gone out of their way to make sure that she is a part of the community with minimal additional supports. However, our local Reform Jewish day school changed its policies to prohibit any acadmic inclusion by the students in a special education program that was partnering with the day school. We removed her that program, and our other daughters from the day school.
So I feel this father’s pain.
I hope and pray soon that our Jewish institutions will recognize that in order to be an authentic Jewish program, we need to be accesible and inclusive of all.

Embodied Torah

For the rest of the story, see part two of this post here.

My almost-16 year old blind son, Solomon, was supposed to spend 8 weeks in the second-oldest Aidah (age group) at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish camping program affiliated with the Conservative movement. My wife and I went to visit him and our 12 year old daughter this week. While there, the camp director told us that he was sending Solomon home four weeks early at the session break because “the camp is not able to accommodate Solomon’s needs for the full 8 week session.”

This is Solomon’s fifth year at camp. Sol went for one session each summer for the previous four years, but this year, called the “Magshimim” year, required campers to enroll for the full summer. Solomon was thrilled to go for both sessions. He loves camp, and for the first four summers…

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I just saw this new documentary, Bully. It was hard to even speak as I left the theater.

For those of you who don’t know it, Bully is a film that follows the lives of five different students. Two of the stories are about young kids who take their own lives because they just can’t take it anymore. The other stories range from the courageous, resilient Kelby who is a target because she is a lesbian, to the numb Alex who stops feeling anything because he is routinely pummelled on the bus and in school.

The stories are heartbreaking. Simply heartbreaking. But rather than for me to write a review, take a look at the trailer and then scroll below it because…well, we have work to do.

One of the most significant parts of attending the viewing of this film was the discussion in the theater afterwards. What emerged started off as a sharing of feelings — outrage, inspiration, disbelief, anger, and so much more. There was also a sharing of students and parents who were exasperated by not finding the support of schools or local officials. Students are missing school, their grades are dropping, the health is less secure, or they are leaving their schools altogether to be home-schooled because our public and private schools are not truly safe.

Their parents weren’t people who didn’t fight for their kids. These were parents who advocated, fought and lobbied to try to insure the safety of their children. Nothing less than that…their safety! And yet, they were frustrated from the brick wall of school administrators more interested in “Schools of Excellence” rather than citizenship, or that a slogan of “Bully Free Zone” will do the trick.

I saw people with pain today. The stories of these families in the film and the stories of the families in the theater ought to ignite a raging intolerance for this bullying in our schools.  We have to fight it because…it isn’t really bullying…it is abuse, assaults, and harassment.

I think right away to our Torah. Look at the very beginning of the Book of Numbers. It says that God instructs Moses to take a census. That makes sense since they were embarking on a long journey towards the Promised Land. They needed to know how many soldiers they would have during their travels. But the Hebrew is: S’u et rosh kol adat b’nai Yisrael — “lift the head up” of everyone in the community of the children of Israel. While the idiom used is simply for a census, I am struck by the idea that in order to take a count, we need to life up the heads of the people and have them feel like they count.

WOW! So to count heads is not enough. If we want to shape a good society and have everyone count, then we have to play a role and lift up the head of our neighbor. It isn’t enough to just take a count; we have to communicate that everyone counts! Everyone matters! Raise up their heads! This community can only make it to the Promised Land if we make sure that everyone is able to hold his or her head up high. Some of them might need some help.

Well, the same is true for today. That is the very least that we can do in our own communities, schools, synagogues, youth programs, and places of work. If someone’s head is down, we must raise them up.

As parents, educators, clergy, mentors or friends, we need to share with our young people that it isn’t only about getting good grades. As important as it is to reach your academic potential, it is just as important to stand up for your peer and take a stand against an injustice.

It’s that simple.

I was glad that our Jewish community got behind this film. The audience today was brought together by BBYO, NFTY-SAR, and a host of Atlanta synagogues and Jewish organizations (click here for info about the pledge to end bullying and who sponsored this gathering). I believe that this is something the Jewish community ought to talk about. It is not only that it is happening to kids in our community, but this is what we have been talking about for the entire past week — being redeemed from Mitzrayim/Egypt and the degradation of slavery. We know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, so we cannot tolerate it when it is done to others. Instead, we raise up the heads of others and have them feel like they count.

If there is one thing that I find myself saying over and over again…it is that the synagogue has to be a place where everyone feels safe. Not only is it a no bullying zone, it is where everyone gets to be themselves and be accepted.

I believe with all of my heart that every single person is created in God’s image. If that is our TRUTH, then we must live that way.

What are your thoughts?

Have you been a victim of bullying? How did you get through it?

Have you stood up for others? (Remember: “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”)

Here are a few other things to look at:

The Bully Project – there are great resources for parents, educators, and teens here.

Facebook.com/groups/standforthesilent

My wife’s blog on the film: Puzzled.

And to help you get started in this important task…here is a little inspiration —

A new announcement:

Please join us:

The BULLY Conversation (free to the community)

Sunday, April 29, from 2-4PM, MJCCA

Facilitated by Rebecca Stapel-Wax, Director, The Rainbow Center of Jewish Family and Career Services

For all parents, families, preteens, and teens who are ready to turn the tide on an epidemic of violence that has touched every community.

Registration will be open on Tuesday, and we will forward that link out to all of you as soon as it is up. (Check in with the MJCCA’s Teen Department).

Participation is not limited to those who were with us at the April 15th screening. Everyone is welcome. We recommend that you see the movie prior to this event, but it is not required.

 

My wife got on this blog kick first. Last summer, she launched Puzzled: Raising a Child with Autism & Other Pieces of Family Life. In one of her very first posts, she shared an amazing perspective on her faith intertwined with raising a child with special needs.

In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, I am sharing Deborah’s message here:

“The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear.” (Reb Nachman of Bratslav)

Navigating life on the autism spectrum involves a series of long & winding roads, uphill climbs & every now and again, a bit of smooth sailing. Unfortunately, you don’t receive any kind of roadmap when you arrive in “Holland.” Sure, there are lots of people there to point you in any number of directions, but you often feel like you are simply flying by the seat of your pants, trying to find your way.

Yael has faced many obstacles on the spectrum.

Some of the hardest roads to travel are those that leave you feeling emotionally lost. You climb to the top of the worry hill, then coast down the road of relief. You turn to push your child forward, then fear that you should hold them back. You gaze upon the street of dreams & wonder if you should even walk there. You try to look ahead down hope street, but first you must cross over your fears. You journey onward with your child knowing that for every step forward, somewhere around the bend, there will be a step back. It is a tiring journey, fraught with emotional pitfalls & detours. You have moments of sheer joy, optimism & pride followed by moments of angst, sadness & doubt.

And while there is no roadmap to this journey, I do believe there is for each of us, a compass. It is faith that can serve as our compass; faith in people, in friends, in our children & in ourselves. I also believe that the true guide on our journey is our faith in God. I have turned to God often during my life on the spectrum. When I am depleted, I ask for strength. When I am full of fear, I ask God to help me find hope. When I am out of patience, I ask God to help me dig down deeper & find just a little more. When I focus only on the struggles, I ask God to remind me of the blessings. And when I have lost my way, I ask God to be my compass. Sometimes my tears serve as my prayer, other times it is my smile. Sometimes I lash out in anger & other times I sing with joy. And sometimes these are the words that I share with God as I cross the narrow bridge…

A Prayer for a Parent of a Special Needs Child and for All Parents of All Children

(From the book “Talking to God” by Rabbi Naomi Levy)

Help me, God, to embrace my child as she is. Teach me how to raise her in love, joy & confidence. Show me how to help her realize all of the gifts You have placed inside her. Prevent me from pressuring her to become what she can never be or does not want to be. When I find myself mourning for what she is not, open my eyes to the holy blessing that she is. When feelings of jealousy surface toward other parents, soften my heart, open my soul. When my patience wears thin, calm me with Your comforting presence. When I feel as if I have no more to give, be my strength, God, abiding & unending. When I hover over my child too closely, remind me to step back and make room for her to fly. If she should fail, teach me how to encourage her to try again. When others are cruel to her, place words of wisdom & comfort on my tongue and place fortitude in her heart. Help her, God. Watch over her. Protect her from harm. Shield her from frustration and hurt. Fill her with pride, God. Teach her to stand up for herself. Grant her good health. Bless her with true & enduring friends. Nurture her awesome potential, God; let it flourish & become manifest. Let her be happy, God. Surround her with Your love. I thank You God, for giving me this very child. She is a gift of God, a precious child, a rare soul, a miracle. She is Mine. Amen.

Our future rabbi~a child of faith

At three years old, my daughter, Yael, stood in front of the mirror when she finally uttered her first independent sentence: “I see God.”

I was a rabbinical student at the time, but my wife and I did not typically go around the house talking about seeing God everywhere. We knew that it wasn’t Yael’s typical echolalia. Yael (who is now 12 years old) was embracing a connection when she was just three for which many of us yearn—seeing God’s Presence in our own reflections. There is a teaching that suggests children have the ability to see angels. Their perspectives are simple and still unclouded by the challenges adults must face. I have always been enamored at Yael’s unclouded vision.

Yael has a diagnosis of High Functioning Autism. While my daughter is not defined by her diagnosis, she embraces it as something that makes her unique. Her Autism, while challenging, is a significant part of who she is and how she sees the world. Her worldview reflects Maimonides’ teaching that when we see someone who is different, we should respond with “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes people different”(Mishneh Torah, Hilchot B’rachot 10:12).

No person is created in vain. If we truly accept and internalize God’s Presence in our lives, then we have no choice but to treat every person with dignity and grace. If we don’t treat our students, our children or our neighbors with the dignity that is inherent in them, it is ultimately a reflection of how we feel about God and God’s Creation.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has written and taught extensively about inclusion in our Jewish communities. In addition to being an exceptional rabbi and teacher, he is the father of Jacob, a young man with Autism. Rabbi Artson teaches that there is a “simple radical truth” that changes everything we do in our Jewish community. If we actually believe that everyone is created in God’s image, then there are no exceptions to this rule! If we are to take that seriously, he says, then we “need to make a radical re-ordering of communal initiatives.” (See his “Including People with Special Needs” June 17, 2009 podcast on The Podcast Page for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University or click <a href="Rabbi Brad Artson, \"Including People With Special Needs\"“>here.)

In a presentation to Jewish education students, Rabbi Artson spoke of how he has approached leaders in Jewish agencies, synagogues and schools in our Jewish community to be more inclusive of our families with special needs. He paraphrased their responses: “We would love to include your child, but we just don’t have the resources…” Many parents of children with special needs have heard that said to them. Rabbi Artson, however, illuminated the perspective of the parent. What we actually hear is, “Your son is not worth our effort.”

As a father and as a rabbi, I think we can do better. We have segments of our community that feel very vulnerable. When these families are told that there is no place for their children—in the sanctuary (because they might be disruptive) or in the school (for a lack of resources), they often choose to leave with feelings of resentment and abandonment.

Jewish educators, clergy and communal leaders have a tremendous opportunity to let these individuals and families know that they are valued. The Reform Movement has always been at the forefront of inclusion for vulnerable populations. It is time to have our budgets reflect our values and begin to authentically welcome this vulnerable population that often sits in silence on the sidelines, assuming that there is no place for them.

Maimonides taught: “Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah—regardless of whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 10) We can serve these souls. It will take more effort and more resources, but the presence of these children and teaches by example that every soul matters.

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