While shopping for gifts at the Mitzvah Store a few months ago, I had the good fortune to run into Elaine Hall, the bubbly, charming director of Nes Gadol (“Great Miracle”), an innovative program at Vista Del Mar that provides religious education for autistic children. As the proud uncle of a wonderful autistic boy, my admiration for the Elaine Halls of the world is unbounded. After helping me to pick out the perfect gift for a naming ceremony, she invited me to attend “The Moses-Aaron Cooperative,” a Shavuot-themed program that allows five children to share Torah insights with the help of “Aarons,” named after the brother and spokesman of Moses. I learned long ago to follow inspired women, and knew I had to go.
Yesterday my search for spirituality in Judaism reached a new level. I was simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and acceptance in Vista Del Mar’s synagogue. Under the direction of charismatic Rabbi Jackie Redner, the program began with two songs by the multiethnic choir of Vista Del Mar, followed by an enlightening video on the use of assisted communication with the students. This method involves having the student either point to a letter board or type the words on a computer in order to communicate. I was especially touched by a video clip that showed the teachers’ efforts to help one of the students pronounce the first sentence of the Torah—in Hebrew.
Now that the stage was set, the stars made their entrance. The first student was Ido Kedar, who is currently preparing for his bar mitzvah. I hope he becomes a rabbi someday. I wanted to stand and cheer aftrer reading these pearls from his teaching: “...our suffering leads to calming hope through our love in God” and “The truth is that much of what people say is meaningless.” Ido then answered questions with the help of a letter board. Ido was followed by Neal Katz, whose insightful teaching should be framed and hung in every Jewish home: “To be Jewish is to take the Torah as the word of G-d and live your life as G-d has said. The people of G-d live by the Torah.” Amen to that.
My tear ducts opened up when I read the writings of student Dov Shestack: “My dream is to talk” and “I think I please God the way I am.” Fellow student Carly Fleischmann touched on the role of religion by asking, “Shouldn’t religion be meaningful in our daily lives?” She ended her teaching with this powerful statement: “My name is Carly Fleischmann and I’m proud to be a Jew.” Carly, I’m proud that you’re a Jew, too.
Last—but certainly not least—was Jacob Artson, who plans to become a writer and teacher. His twin sister Shira served as his “Myriam,” and through her mouth we learned from Jacob that “Our lives are not determined by where we start” and “Being aware of God’s presence in our lives means being aware of God’s abundant blessings.” I’ve sat through many synagogue sermons, and have yet to hear one that was as motivating and enlightening as the teachings of these inspiring young people. It was a great blessing for me to hear their messages, and as I drove away from Vista Del Mar I meditated on these sobering words from the Mormon hymn “Count Your Blessings”:
So, amid the conflict,
Whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged,
God is over all;
Count your many blessings,
Angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you
To your journey’s end.
Count your blessings,
Name them one by one;
Count your blessings,
See what God hath done.
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