Becca Hornstein’s move to Phoenix in 1983 coincided with reaching her breaking point: She had had enough of her son’s exclusion from Jewish life.
“Judaism is a religion that celebrates families. When you cannot celebrate Judaism as a family — that’s exclusion,” she said. Her son, Joel, is autistic and couldn’t participate in children’s programs at synagogues. He wasn’t even allowed in the synagogues’ childcare while she attended services.
At the time, Hornstein said the expectation was that children with autism were violent, unresponsive to their environments, “profoundly intellectually incapacitated” and that they couldn’t love or express love. Joel couldn’t sit with Hornstein during services, because he would make noises and be considered disruptive.
“I wasn’t going to let other people’s biases stop me from being the person that I am. Being a Jew largely defined who I was and my husband as well. Why would we deny our children the legacy of a beautiful religion and community?”
Hornstein’s determination for her son to be included led to what is now Gesher Disability Resources, which serves 3,000 Jewish children and adults affected by a disability every year.
If parents reach out to most Jewish organizations in Greater Phoenix today, Joyce Berk-Lippincott, Gesher co-founder, is confident they will find accommodations for children with special needs. But it wasn’t always that way.
When Joel was 9 years old in 1983, Hornstein knew she wanted him to have some form of a bar mitzvah and begin religious school.
“It was his right and his privilege as the son of Jewish parents, grandparents, great grandparents,” she said.
But nobody would enroll him.
“In that year, I got more and more upset,” she said. Every Sunday, she’d drive Shana, her daughter, to Sunday school with Joel in the backseat, and he’d watch his sister and all her friends get together and play. But he had to stay in the car.
There were about a dozen congregations around Phoenix at the time, and Hornstein called them all: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
She explained she would like to bring her autistic son, who had only begun to speak in the last year and a half to religious school. They would need to have a sign language interpreter on site and a special education teacher who understands how to communicate with him, but he can read and write.
It took her about a year to get a “yes,” and it came from Temple Chai.
Rabbi Bill Berk, Temple Chai’s senior rabbi from 1983 to 2006, asked her why it was important to her.
“I said, ‘Because Joe’s a person of value and dignity and I want to celebrate that when he turns 13.’ And Rabbi Berk said, ‘Best answer. Let’s do it.’ That was it,” Hornstein recalled.
Once a week he would meet one-on-one with Joel, and Hornstein would be there to translate lessons in sign language.
After a while, Joel was ready for more. He was growing and learned to speak. “All of the sudden, the world was opening up for him,” Hornstein said.
Berk asked Hornstein what was next, and she suggested starting a class for Joel and other students with disabilities. To her surprise, he again was receptive and the two worked together to make it happen. In the fall of 1985, the class began with four students with varying disabilities.
Hornstein called the Reform movement’s national office, which at the time was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and asked if there was another similar class that they knew of. She wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel.
But there was nothing.
“They said, ‘If you’re creating it, can we use it as a model?’ And they did. So we became a model for the Reform movement’s Jewish special education program,” she said.
Berk said Hornstein immediately struck him as somebody who not only had dreams, but “knows how to get things done,” and Joel seemed like a sweet boy.
Berk was open to it all primarily because of his mother, who as a young girl had polio, he said. “The rest of her life she had an astounding level of concern for those with special needs, for the poor, for African-Americans, for the most defenseless elements of society. She hammered this into her children,” he said. “I was also motivated to work in this area because of how I took seriously the Jewish tradition’s challenge to look at every single human being as tzelem elokim, an image of God.”
In 1984, Berk also got a call from Berk-Lippincott. Her son, Kregg Berk, is on the autism spectrum and she was grateful that the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Phoenix accommodated his needs. “He loved it,” Berk-Lippincott said. “He was in special ed in high school and he didn’t have any Jewish friends.”
Separately, Berk-Lippincott had decided around the same time that the Jewish community needed more special education teachers. She started going through the phone book calling temples and asking if they knew of any families with special needs children.
“Lo and behold, Rabbi Berk at Temple Chai said, ‘I have the perfect person for you,’” she said. It was Hornstein.
Berk-Lippincott told Hornstein about her desire to have her son participate in a Jewish summer camp. They teamed up, and Berk-Lippincott garnered the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, while Hornstein worked on the programming and educational support staff. In the summer of 1985, they successfully worked with the Jewish Federation and the then-Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, at the time on Maryland Road, to offer a summer camp program for kids with disabilities.
Next, they hosted a meeting for the Jewish community to gauge interest for doing something beyond a summer camp.
“Famous last words,” Hornstein jokes. “I said, ‘Sure I’ll help you, but I’m not going to start an agency.’”
More people than she imagined, 87, showed up, and they had many ideas and requests: more religious school classes and summer camps, after-school programs, a parent support group, support groups for the siblings of children with disabilities and community forums to educate the public.
“When you’re passionate about something, it’s really hard to say no,” Hornstein said. She offered to start a committee at the JCC to look into these requests. People began to realize it was possible to create a Jewish community “that is truly inclusive.”
In 1985, the pair formed the Council for Jews With Special Needs.
Berk-Lippincott was in charge of fundraising and Hornstein was in charge of programming. Their first task was to educate the Jewish community that Jews with special needs existed: Hornstein would speak during Friday night or Saturday morning Shabbat services, as well as at Hadassah and ORT America chapter gatherings.
She met with synagogues and day schools about the demand for religious school programming for kids with special needs, and she started the parent support group.
With the JCC’s support, she and Berk-Lippincott also began planning for the following summer’s camp.
“From that moment in 1985, we’ve never had a JCC that refused our kids with special needs,” Hornstein said. “Once they started, they committed.”
As the children grew, Hornstein developed programming to fit their needs, including modified b’nai mitzvah training.
“I remember parents coming up to me at the end of Joel’s bar mitzvah and standing there crying and saying, ‘Now I know my son or daughter can do it,’” Hornstein said.
Hornstein has a degree in art and takes pride in her creativity in either developing programming herself or finding all the resources available to make her vision come to life.
To suit kids with special needs who have aged out of religious school or were b’nai mitzvahed without a service they could understand, she made monthly Simchat Shabbat services.
“We created a prayer book that was made very specifically for as many challenges as I could anticipate,” she said. Instead of having Hebrew and transliteration, they contain pictures which serve as visual cues for what to do and when — be it putting on a tallit, singing a song or standing up or down.
For the kids who became adults and no longer wanted to live with their parents, she created group homes. The first of them, Shalom House, opened in September 2001 and just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Hornstein retired in 2014 and has been an engaged Gesher board member since, as is Berk-Lippincott.
“Who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to go to work and maybe make someone’s life a little better. How did I get that lucky to have that opportunity? What a blessing,” Hornstein said.
In 2017, the agency changed its name to Gesher Disability Resources to more accurately reflect what it’s become. Gesher is a Hebrew word meaning “bridge,” and that’s what the agency is for its members.
Looking back, Hornstein and Berk-Lippincott are proud of what they accomplished.
“I’ve learned that just as autism is a spectrum disorder, that there is a spectrum of people out there — and while some of them may disappoint you tremendously, there are so many people who are just waiting for you to ask for some help. And they will,” Hornstein said.
To parents who have just been handed a diagnosis, “I want to say, ‘Give it a try. You can do it. There’s strength in you that you don’t realize you have.’”
Berk-Lippincott said it takes a village to put an organization like this together, “and we’re blessed to be living in such a village. Group homes and social groups and just everything that we have now — we couldn’t dream of those things back in 1985,” she said.
Amy Hummell, who joined Gesher as executive director in 2015, said she is honored to continue the work started by Hornstein and Berk-Lippincott.
She is looking to develop more organizational partnerships. For example, she is hoping to partner with the Martin Pear Jewish Community Center for Wednesday night social groups.
“I want Wednesday nights at the JCC to become the place to be for adults with disabilities,” she said.
Next steps for the organization also include more residential housing and continuing to grow special education resources and infrastructure for Jewish schools.
Hummell’s children do not have disabilities, but she joined Gesher after about a decade with Autism Speaks.
“It’s hard when you’re in the thick of it, struggling as well as working in the industry,” Hummell said. “When I was at Autism Speaks there was a big movement of parents asking for help, saying, ‘We’re tired. We’ve been doing this fundraising and programming and also dealing with our kids.’ I’m really fighting for all these kids and families.” JN