Last week, I met a man in his 60s whose father survived the Holocaust. He told me that, as a child, he trembled when he brought home a report card with anything less than straight A’s.
“My father would say, ‘I managed to survive Auschwitz, and you can’t manage to get an A?’ ” the man said.
We do, as a people, put a premium on intellectual prowess. Which of course raises the question of how we treat those of different, or lesser, abilities.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month — a good time to reflect on the progress we’ve made and the work still to be done.
Fifteen years ago, there were just a handful of programs in the L.A. Jewish community to welcome and assist the disabled: Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Ojai, the Shaare Tikvah program at Valley Beth Shalom, Chaverim at Jewish Family Service (JFS), two programs at Vista del Mar, and Etta Israel Center for the observant.
Since then, new programs have been springing up all over, some led by professionals in the field, some by parents.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” Michelle Wolf, who writes the blog Jews and Special Needs at jewishjournal.com, wrote me in an e-mail.
Although Wolf is too modest to say so, she deserves more than a little credit for the transformation. Together with JFS’ Sally Weber, Wolf started HaMercaz at The Jewish Federation, which has helped coordinate and jumpstart many new programs, including a recent special-needs study mission to Israel.
Nationally, many synagogues now conduct special-needs prayer services, and offer accommodations for b’nai mitzvah and other programs.
But two challenges remain. One, Wolf wrote, is to create a national coordinating system, along the lines of Hillels.
The other challenge is even more daunting: to figure out how we, as a community, are going to provide the huge number of Jewish adults with special needs the residential, vocational and financial resources they will need as they grow older and their parents are no longer around or able to do so. Group homes, vocational training and long-term trusts loom as major needs that will require major resources.
Last Friday night at Shabbat services at Nashuva, the congregation in Brentwood that my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, leads, a tall, blond and strikingly handsome 18-year-old man named Neal Katz walked to the bimah.
Katz doesn’t speak. He wears headphones to muffle loud noises. Many people glance at him, or stare at him, and in a moment, dismiss him.
Story continues after the jump.
But Neal Katz will be heard. He types on an iPhone and iPad with voice output and also uses sign language to communicate. He is a student at Santa Monica High School and the Cogwheels School. He also works at The Farms in Santa Monica and in the organic garden at Camp JCA Shalom. He became a bar mitzvah through Nes Gadol at Vista Del Mar. He is a presenter at conferences, a star of the HBO film “Autism: The Musical” and the inspiration for his mother, Elaine Hall, to found The Miracle Project. She chronicles her son’s story in the book “Now I See the Moon.”
Katz had written a meditation to precede the Shema. Because he was unable to read it, he stood by as 13-year-old bat mitzvah student Renata Robins read for him. This is his prayer:
There is much yet to be done for Jews with special needs. It will require significant communal leadership, effort and money. But you know what? It’s worth it.
“Inspired by the Shema — To Listen”
by Neal Katz
I cannot speak. For whatever reason, God has intended for me to be mute. Many people might believe that I cannot think, but despite their thinking, I can. What’s more is that I listen. A lot of people may stare at me, and when they do, I listen to their body movements and eye gaze. I listen to their ignorance. I listen because I have no choice but to take in the world in the way I can.
Listening is different from hearing. When you hear someone, you simply recognize that they are emoting sounds. When you listen to someone, you actually process what they are saying and internalize it.
What do I think of the people who stare? Let’s break it down. What they are saying is that they are unsure of me. They can’t quite figure me out and don’t know how to categorize me. They are saying that I am not the way they are. That something’s not right.
Now for the second part, how I internalize it. I used to have some issues with this. I used to believe the stares and thought there was something wrong with me. I used to get down on myself for not fitting in. Now, I am much more confident in myself and my diagnosis. I am an advocate for autism awareness, an emissary, if you will. I welcome the stares, and I wish people would actually ask, “What’s different about you?” I’ve internalized that some people are uninformed, not knowledgeable about special needs, and need to learn about neurological differences. I don’t take it personal anymore.
I’ve listened enough. It’s time for me to speak, however it may sound. Through an electronic device, my hands, or my mouth. Now it’s your time to listen. Are you ready?