A little while ago, Hendel Schwartz got a call from a city bus driver.
“Your son walks with God,” the driver told her.
Daniel Schwartz, 23, who has cerebral palsy, is sociable with a great sense of humor, and once he learned the independence of riding buses, he made them something of a second home.
Parents and activists have long understood that those with disabilities have a unique perspective that can, and should, influence those around them.
Take Daniel’s determination. He walks with a limp and his left hand curls in on itself at the wrist and isn’t functional, but Daniel opens his own pill bottles, sinks three-pointers in basketball with alarming frequency, goes bowling every Sunday and visits homebound senior citizens after that. His enthusiasm for leading the blessing after meals at UCLA Hillel on Friday nights has shown other students the joy of Jewish ritual.
“They are going to be leaders in the community — it’s not just about these poor kids with disabilities. It’s not like they’re someone’s mitzvah project,” said Elaine Hall, founder and director of a Jewish arts program for children with autism at Vista Del Mar.
In fact, at Vista, kids in the Nes Gadol b’nai mitzvah and confirmation classes lead their own community service projects. Hall’s 17-year-old son, Neal, who has autism and communicates through typing, is working on organizing a beach cleanup. Quinn, who plays guitar, has become the class’ song leader.
During a recent discussion, the class, ranging from high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome to completely non-verbal, brainstormed ideas for a joint program with at-risk youth who live at Vista.
Older teens act as counselors for a Hebrew-immersion program for younger kids, and in the confirmation class the more experienced kids act as mentors for the younger ones, displaying an empathy autistic children are presumed to lack.
Some go on the speaker’s circuit as self-advocates.
“Autism is an amazing and fantastic disability, and something to be proud of,” Rachel, said during a Nes Gadol class. “We can inspire a lot of teens.”
Rabbi Jackie Redner, rabbi-in-residence at Vista, believes that integrating people with autism can help the community reframe its priorities.
“In the Jewish community, we want our kids to achieve and get the best grades and get the best jobs and get into the best schools. The amount of pressure that puts on our kids is profound, but it also doesn’t focus us on what really makes a successful person — living life with a full heart and being loving and kind toward your fellow,” Redner said.
Redner has come to appreciate what her students have taught her.
They look past quirks and straight to a person’s essence. She has seen a boy endlessly examine a blade of grass, and a girl told her that when she looks up into trees she see balls of light — the tree’s spirit.
“When they listen to music, they can see the music waves. They can hear through walls. Their perception is so much greater than the average person’s. So who is really seeing reality? They can really show us what we’re not seeing, and that is part of the gift they bring into the world.”