Jared, our 41-year-old middle son, lives with us at home and is solely dependent on us for his care.
Like most Jewish parents, our goal is to raise our children to be happy and independent and to lead a Jewish life. Our oldest and youngest children and their families have that, and, while Jared was born with disabilities, we do not want him to live his life disabled.
We — like many others in this situation — have to overcome certain obstacles in order to lead a Jewish life and to celebrate all that Judaism has to offer. Jared has, for the most part, been joyfully accepted into our family and the community, but celebrating Jewish festivals is challenging, and mainstreaming isn’t an option since too much noise and large group settings overwhelm him.
Genesis teaches us that “each of us is created in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:27) That’s a lesson we take to heart.
About 35 years ago, David Pinkwasser, our rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, now emeritus, introduced us to Becca Hornstein who co-founded the Council for Jews with Special Needs. Eventually the organization would be renamed Gesher Disability Resources.
"Gesher" is the Hebrew word for “bridge,” and it is a bridge that enables us to celebrate Jewish life in a “non-shush” environment. Gesher members interact with peers and celebrate all the observances and Jewish lifecycle events. We’ve come to know families who share similar circumstances to ours over the years. We have made lifelong friendships — just like the experiences we had with our two neurotypical children.
Our monthly Simchat Shabbats, held at Congregation Beth Israel and at Temple Emanuel during the summer months, are especially spiritual — whether in person or on Zoom. The clergy and staff who perform these mitzvot are truly amazing people, and the gratitude we feel about being able to celebrate together is beyond words.
There is a noticeable calm in Jared when Stacy Rosenthal, who often leads the Gesher Simchat Shabbat at CBI, has him standing before the ark and our holy Torah scrolls — truly memorable moments for all present.
We take the words of Leviticus to heart: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19)
And doing something for those with disabilities is our mission at Gesher.
Amy Hummell, Gesher’s executive director, coordinates weekly virtual activities with her amazing staff. They have created a community where we socialize and celebrate Passover seders, birthdays, b’nai mitzvahs and so much more.
This is even more important to us during this pandemic since Jared can’t go to his daily program or be in a congregate setting. But when he hears voices, music and images of familiar faces, his face lights up. We look forward to the day we can all be together again.
We are preparing for Passover, which commemorates the Biblical story of Exodus and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It is everyone’s favorite holiday because we observe it at home, gathered with family and friends, doing what the Jewish people do best: remembering and eating.
And while Jared enjoys very small family gatherings, he is unable to participate in or attend larger seders. However, we just celebrated Gesher’s annual special needs Passover seder virtually with Gesher families and others. Celebrating our individuality in a peer community was a joyful occasion. The Zoom seder — hopefully the last virtual seder — included many volunteers, Jewish groups and congregations who are a part of the Gesher community.
We all need to be aware of what we are doing to be inclusive of all abilities and remember the words in Isaiah, “For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56)
We are so grateful to live in Arizona where we don’t shovel snow, but we do have access to state services for disabled citizens whose parents also get excellent services. In fact, Arizona’s services are probably the best in the country. For example, there is virtually unlimited respite home care available which allows us to take breaks and vacations as needed.
We are fortunate to have Gesher — a rare organization in the country as far as I know. It supports these wonderful activities as well as Jewish group homes, education and events.
The day will come, in the not-too-distant future, where we can all be together in person again. But for now, Jewish life goes on. We have been through much worse and survived as a people, and it is our faith and community that provides the continuity “from generation to generation” even for — and perhaps especially for — families with special needs.
We were given a broken world so that we may find purpose and find bridges to fix it. Tikkun olam is what Gesher represents. We are so grateful for last weekend’s community no-shush Gesher Model Seder and for Gesher making life so much better for parents and children with special needs. One fix at a time.
We are all different in one way or another, so remember the Mishnah’s words,
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who makes people different.” (Hilchot B’rachot 10:12) JN
Ed Katz is an incoming member on Gesher Disability Resources’ board.