Opening the Gates


Jacob Artson, 16, gave the following speech last May at a conference in Los Angeles titled “Opening the Gates: Building Inclusive Congregations and Communities for Jews with Special Needs,” where he shared the keynote address with his father, Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. The conference was co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation, HaMercaz, The Board of Rabbis, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.

Hi. My name is Jacob Artson and I am a person just like you.

I am part of a wonderful Jewish family, I go to our local public high school, where I am in mostly regular classes, I play sports, I love to travel, and I enjoy hanging out with my friends and girlfriend.

The only difference between you and me is that I have lots of labels attached to me, like nonverbal, severely autistic and developmentally disabled.

It is true that I have some challenges, but there are lots of myths and misconceptions about autism out there. Many purported experts claim that individuals with autism are not interested in socializing. This is totally ridiculous. I love people, but my movement disorder constantly interferes with my efforts to interact. I cannot start and stop and switch my thinking or emotions or actions at the right time. This can make being in a big group very lonely and that is the worst thing about autism. So next time you see someone like me at your synagogue or at your event, remember that they probably feel really lonely and you could be the person to make their day by smiling at them and letting them know that they exist.

Another myth is that the majority of kids with autism are mentally retarded. In fact, our bodies are totally disorganized but our cognitive skills are intact and our minds are hungry for knowledge.

Every person alive is encumbered by challenges and blessed with gifts. I used to think that my ratio of challenges to gifts was higher than most, but now I realize that my challenges are just more obvious. I have learned that there are actually many positive aspects of autism. For example, I get a VIP pass at Disneyland and I get to kiss all the beautiful counselors at camp and pretend I don’t know any better. On a serious note, not being able to speak means that you spend lots of time listening.

In fact, much of what I know I’ve learned from listening to conversations that other people didn’t think I could hear, or listening through the wall to what the teacher in the next classroom was saying. People often ask me how I became such a good writer. The answer is that my inability to speak gives me lots of time to contemplate and imagine and also forces me to hear everyone’s perspective and think about it because I cannot interrupt or monopolize the conversation like people who have oral speech.

In the autism world we say that not being able to speak doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to say. In my experience, the converse is also true —just because you can speak doesn’t mean that you have anything worth saying.

Since this is a conference on including people with disabilities in the Jewish community, I want to share with you the ways in which autism has affected my participation in Jewish life. I have found great support in God, Torah, and the Jewish community. The greatest single day of my life was my bar mitzvah because everyone there accepted and celebrated me for exactly who I am. At the end of the service, everyone came up on the bima for Adon Olam. I will carry in my mind and heart forever the picture of everyone there smiling at me. I had wonderful experiences when I was in a Jewish preschool and later kindergarten, even though my teachers had never had a child with autism in their class. What made those experiences successful was the way the teachers modeled inclusion for the other kids. They treated me as a person made in God’s image and not as different in any way. In kindergarten, I had amazing peers. They were mostly Persian and inclusiveness is engrained in their culture. They tried all year to get me to interact with them even though I was usually too excited to focus. I’ve also had wonderful buddies from The Friendship Circle, attended several Jewish camps, participated in a Jewish musical theater program called The Miracle Project, and prayed at Koleinu, a service at Temple Beth Am for kids with special needs.

But there have been obstacles as well. I have never attended religious school because I was bored in the special ed Hebrew school and the typical classes did not allow a place for me to engage either. When I was younger, I went to synagogue every Shabbat but the other kids ignored me. As a teenager, I have had some wonderful Jewish experiences at camp and elsewhere, but the first reaction is that I am too disabled to attend, or that I don’t participate once I’m there. So whether I’m invited seems to depend on the particular director that year. I have noticed that when I attend Jewish youth group events, the volunteers seem to pay attention primarily to the verbal kids, so I am lonely. I suspect that this stems from lack of exposure, but their youth leaders could do a better job of modeling inclusion too.

The public schools and secular programs I have attended have been much more welcoming. The public schools are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, and they, too, seem to have a culture of inclusion. The kids at school treat me like family and pull me into everything they do. I go to a secular camp for autistic kids in Aspen every summer and everyone is welcome there. We do cool things like go tubing and white water rafting and I am able to participate in everything because I know they will work with me where I’m at.

In my secular inclusive sports program, Team Prime Time, the director has taken the time to allow for sharing on several levels, so the kids all respect me for my intelligence and understand how hard I’m working to make a basket or kick the ball. I have also been part of their new volunteer training and have spoken about autism at school, but I have never been invited to participate in volunteer training for any Jewish program I have attended.

So here is a final thought I would like to leave you with:

The best peers and aides I have had didn’t have any special background. It doesn’t actually take any training to be a leader who models inclusion. It just takes an attitude that all people are made in God’s image and it is our job to find the part of God hidden in each person.

I used to get very upset and offended at the idea of being someone’s mitzvah project or community service project. But now I see that I also have a role to play in helping create the messianic future. It is easy in our affluent society to become too dazzled by the material opportunities and the privileges that we have been born with. But I have had to struggle from the day I was born to do many things that other people take for granted. Because of that, I have experienced God’s love in a way most children have not. So maybe we are each other’s mitzvah project because I can help them see the glories of the world that they have never noticed, and they can teach me how to look like other kids. All in all, who is getting a greater benefit? In the end, together we bring God’s glory to all of humanity.

What Men Want (To Say)


On a typical coffee date, because we’re meeting for the first time, awkward conversation comes with the territory. Neither of us completely reveals what we’re thinking or feeling. We’re shy, holding back, concealing, putting on a good face, feeling the other person out.

How much more interesting the first date would be if we both were to communicate our true emotions. Still, those actual thoughts and feelings are definitely present, whether uttered or not. They’re simply bubbling under the conversation’s surface; biding their time until we feel more comfortable and trusting with one another.

For instance, take this (nearly) verbatim transcript from one of my coffee dates. All un-uttered thoughts have been italicized for the protection of the emotionally fragile.

Me: Lauri?

Here I go again. Date No. 163, but who’s counting? At this rate, by next May I’ll have dated every unattached woman in the city. At which time I’ll have to start importing them from other countries and taking Berlitz classes.

Lauri: Hi, Mark. Nice to meet you.

Dear Lord, please don’t let this one be a stalker, a jerk or have serious psychological issues like the last six. I believe I’ve reached my annual quota for restraining orders.

Me: Should we get some coffee and sit down?

And then decide within 10 minutes whether there’s a chance we might eventually see each other naked or, and most likely, never see each other again?

Lauri: Sounds good.

Looks like I’m gonna have to train this one how to dress, make eye contact, speak, stand up straight and do something with that hair. Yep, this one’s a definite fixer-upper. Again. Dear Lord, just shoot me now.

Me: So, have you been doing this Internet dating thing long?

Exactly how many guys have you rejected, and how many have rejected you? Be specific. You have five minutes to answer. Show all work. Begin.

Lauri: You’re actually only the first coffee date I’ve been on.

Today. The sum total of all my coffee dates could fill Dodger Stadium. And it’s always I who do the rejecting, because I am perfect and they are flawed. Capiche? So unless your own perfection level approaches mine, you might as well start heading over to the stadium right now.

Me: What are you looking for in a relationship?

Are you a) High maintenance? b) Emotionally needy? c) Nuts?

Lauri: Oh, I don’t know. I guess the usual — chemistry, shared goals, friendship.

A man with Brad Pitt’s looks and Bill Gates’ bank account who can make me yodel in bed. That specific enough for you, Sparky?

Me: What kinds of things do you like to do for fun?

And please know that the red flag goes up immediately with any hint of chick flicks, shopping or eating at restaurants whose names begin with a “Le.”

Lauri: I’m pretty down-to-earth. Just the usual.

That is, if you define “usual” as a) Frequent, “where is this heading?” talks about our relationship; b) Having my mother visit us as often as possible; c) Making it my lifelong mission to interest you in ballet and opera.

Me: Is it just me, or am I sensing some chemistry here?

I’m picturing you without your clothing right now, but I’m gonna have to do some up-close and personal research in order to get the full effect.

Lauri: You might be right.

It’s just you.

Me: May I walk you to your car?

And check out your rear view as I, the perfect gentleman, allow you to walk in front of me?

Lauri: Sure. Can I contribute something to the bill?

And need I remind you that a “yes” answer on your part will forever brand you as a cheapskate of the highest caliber?

Me: Oh, no, I’ve got it. Thanks.

I accepted one of those invitations to contribute once before and ended up as the featured newcomer on www.cheapdatestoavoid.com for two months.

Me: Well, here we are. It was really good to meet you.

Because I enjoy taking two-hour chunks out of my day to spend time with people I’ll never see again.

Lauri: You, too. You seem like a really nice guy.

And we’ll have our next date when Paris Hilton becomes a nun.

On second thought, perhaps those dates are better off with the actual thoughts and feelings remaining bubbling under the conversation’s surface. After all, if you start off a romantic relationship with absolute honesty, no telling what madness and chaos would result.

Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional
stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He
can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

Finishing the Foundation


As an experienced plastic surgeon, Dr. Joel Teplinsky knows how to fix a nose or perform a skin graft on a burn patient. As a lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles, Teplinsky knows how to communicate these skills to students. But what he did not have was a solid base of knowledge about Torah or Jewish history — until the opportunity arose to be a part of the Yesod program at the University of Judaism (UJ), studying with professors like Aryeh Cohen and Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.

"Most Jews, unless they are rabbis or grow up going to a yeshiva, don’t get a chance to do this," Teplinsky said. "This is not Sunday school where you learn some bubbie meises [old wives’ tales], this is the real nuts and bolts of Judaism."

On May 30, Teplinsky and 176 other students will become the first graduates of the Yesod program. Yesod, which means "foundation," is a two-year intensive series of classes designed to provide a structured way for people to engage in a learning experience similar to that of an undergraduate in Jewish studies. What makes the program unique is that it has been run at a very low cost (currently $250 per year) and in association with area synagogues, with classes taking place at various shuls around town, such as Sinai Temple in Westwood, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

Yesod initiated its first two-year cycle of classes in the fall of 2000. The program consists of eight semesters, each a five-week session exploring one of eight topics, including the Bible, contemporary issues, Jewish spirituality and modern Jewish history, all taught by UJ faculty and visiting professors. A second cycle began last fall, and another cycle will start in September, although according to Gady Levy, director of the UJ’s department of continuing education and creator of Yesod, the program will reduce its locations to just two synagogues, not yet chosen, in order to better accommodate instructors’ schedules.

Like Teplinsky, some people come to the Yesod wanting to offset a rather limited background in Judaism. Others, such as Elana Artson, 41, find themselves at the opposite extreme. As the wife of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Elana Artson has been exposed to plenty in the way of Jewish knowledge. At the same time, she said, because of the time spent supporting her husband in his endeavors and caring for their two children, she rarely had time to do any intellectual exploration of her own. Yesod gave her the chance to step outside of her usual roles and spend time learning.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson said he found the program "unique in its comprehensiveness."

"There was something similar offered at the Jewish Theological Seminary when Brad was a student, an opportunity for people from the community to study with some of the professors, but it was kind of hit-and-miss," Elana Artson recalled. "Yesod is synagogue-based and has an intensive curriculum. My first class was studying Bible with Walter Hertzberg [chair of the UJ’s department of undergraduate studies] who teaches in such a way that anyone could come in at their level and be able to engage in a conversation about the text. It was wonderful knowing I was learning what rabbinical students are also learning."

Of the 216 people who began with the first cycle, 82 percent stayed through graduation.

The program has proved so popular that Levy is even launching a continuation course of the continuation course: Yesod Plus, a third-year series for Yesod graduates.

"Our ultimate goal for our students is to have them take the program for two years and be touched by it so that they can continue their education in other ways, whether it is to take classes at their synagogue or the UJ or just to read more," Levy said. "We want them to advance their own knowledge."