Tag: inclusion

The Disability Inclusion Hero Awards

Cross posted on Jews & Special Needs blog 
of the Jewish Journal

As the new calendar year begins, we are entertained by those Year in Review lists and Person of the Year awards, both inside and outside of the Jewish communities. Time magazine aptly chose the Pope Francis as its Person of the Year for his calling for a church of healing. T’ruah,The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, honors its T’ruah Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award including (deservingly) LA’s Rabbi Dara Frimmer (Temple Isaiah). Perhaps most uniquely, Jewrotica, the self-declared “hub for Jewish sexual expression,” listed the Sexiest Rabbis of 2013, in three categories: The Smarts, Getting Some (social) Action, and Bad Ass/Sex Appeal. (Blogger’s Confession: To ensure complete objectivity for this blogpost, I disallowed any consideration of myself for the Jewrotica lists.)

We can argue whether these lists or others (like Newsweek’s cynical Top Rabbi’s lists) are unnecessary and inappropriate. Ranking rabbis inserts the very same vapid values of power, prestige and self-importance that the rabbinic profession and religious pursuits strive to ameliorate.
Still, this time of year led me to wonder whether the Jewish community might create lists to shine light into important contributions to the inclusion world. Inclusion Awards might honor those who strive to include people with disabilities into our community. Too many Jewish institutions and organizations have dragged their feet either because of ignorance, tightfistedness or self-focus. Too many people with special needs and their families languish on the outskirts of the Jewish community, unable to break in because the randomness of life’s lottery that gave them or their child certain challenges that many others do not have to face. Jewish communities that embrace them deserve recognition and investment.
We could create as the highest honor, a special category of award, perhaps called The Inclusion Hero, which would be awarded to parents and grandparents who refocus their lives to embrace the challenge of a child with special needs. (Simultaneously, we might create an Exceptionally-Abled Person Honor to be awarded to Jews with special needs, who embrace their challenges and work extra hard to accomplish what others can do almost automatically. More on that in another Jews and Special Needs post.)
Parent and grandparents balance worry and wonder, frustration and far-sightedness, inspiration and incredible inner strength – all in the pursuit of giving their loved one the best chance possible. They may have argued with family members who did not believe that this “kid can do it.” They probably have battled repeatedly with school systems required by law to assist children with special needs but which in practice often stonewall, playing cynical games with children’s lives. They have sacrificed rejuvenating social time with spouses or partners, their other children and longtime friends because the needs of this one child cannot be ignored or postponed. Yet, when life dealt them a set of cards different than what they were expecting, they took it in stride – perhaps after some anguish and tears – and played the best way they knew how. Yes, they are the “rock stars” of our world!
On second thought, perhaps this is not really a good idea. Because the very process of choosing which individual or family deserves The Inclusion Hero honor creates a hierarchy of giving and sacrifice that demeans the loving work that every such parent or grandparent does.
Instead, let’s repurpose existing awards. All parents of people with special needs deserve to be named Person of the Year because they transform the lives of their loved ones. They all deserve to be T’ruah’s Human Rights Hero for ensuring the human rights of their special needs child are not trampled. And because caring for loved ones makes people really sexy – good looks may fade, but kindness endures – they each should be applauded by Jewrotica for their smarts, social activism, and Bad Ass/Sex Appeal.
Next time you read a Top 10 list honoring special people, think instead about the people who care for their children of any age with special needs. Then call or email them, praising them as your Inclusion Heroes. They undoubtedly deserve it and most assuredly will appreciate the recognition.

Lessons Learned from Living Through Challenge #2, by Eric and Jill Epstein

On Yom Kippur, three Congregation Or Ami members shared sermonettes throughout the service on Lessons They Learned Living Through Hardship. These Jewish TED Talk/Yom Kippur Social Sermons were each moving individually and very inspiring as a whole. Read about How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon.

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Lessons Learned from Living Through Challenge  
by Eric and Jill Epstein

It is often said that God will not give you more than you can handle. When our third child Ethan was born, he must have wondered if God was right and whether he was up for the challenge of truly enlightening us.

Challenge is a relative and dynamic term. One person’s challenge is another’s day-to-day existence. Our son Ethan is within the Autism Spectrum. Just uttering those words – Autism Spectrum – used to be a challenge for us. Now, we laugh at the label, as Ethan is so social and happy defying customary views of such a diagnosis. The truth is that the only spectrum we deal with these days is the spectrum of goals we have been blessed to look forward to accomplishing.

Jill, Ethan and Eric Epstein
When Ethan Became a Bar Mitzvah

We used to wonder if Ethan would ever speak, and now we have to hold him back from pushing Rabbi Paul aside at the bimah. Congregation Or Ami has become such an important place for Ethan for many reasons. When our first son, Andrew, became Bar Mitzvah, we were so worried that Ethan might distract from the services that he was sequestered to the sound-proof kids’ room. Ethan would have none of that, as he grabbed a prayer book and took part in the services on the bimah with a quiet calm we had not seen previously.

Seven years later, Ethan was leading services at his own Bar Mitzvah service with that quiet calm we had become accustomed to. Although Rabbi Paul, Cantor Doug and Diane Townsend were prepared to modify the service as needed, Ethan would have none of that and participated as fully as another other Or Ami student. Gazing out to a crowd of friends and family, Ethan unrehearsed exclaimed, “This is my moment!”

Of course, tackling Ethan’s special needs is a team sport. That “moment” didn’t happen without a team of teachers, educational therapists, speech therapists, and behavioral therapists to challenge his short-comings head-on and who stood proudly with Ethan for a very special Aliyah. These challenges merely amplify his accomplishments.

Former Or Ami President Michael Kaplan swears that Ethan will be President of Congregation Or Ami someday. Such a statement seems as challenging as his Bar Mitzvah service was seven years ago. Why not set this as his next goal? We have learned that you hit what you aim for, and if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. Isn’t that a lesson of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer? That life will necessarily throw challenges our way. Our job is to reach out and find ways of finding goodness and blessing nonetheless.

For Ethan, he seems to have a special companion on this unlikely and challenging course of life that draws him to services on many a Friday evening. When Rabbi Paul once asked him in front of the Congregation what draws him to Temple. In a sentence that was simultaneously simple and yet complicated, Ethan answered, “I feel close to God.”

And we have no doubt that God is particularly close to him too.

G’mar Chatimah Tova. May you be sealed for a blessing in the Book of Life.

Listen to Eric and Jill Epstein’s Sermonette (at 00:33:40).