Posted by Michelle K. Wolf
For many years, I’ve been on the sidelines of LimmudLA, hearing about it from friends and colleagues but not sure how it would go with a child who has developmental disabilities
Last Sunday, Danny and I spent the day at LimmudLA (which is held in Costa Mesa) and finally got the chance to see what all the fuss was about. It was kind of like an old-school 60s Teach-in, combined with eastern/spiritual/hippie intersecting with funky new perspectives on old texts.
I had signed Danny up for childcare ahead of time using the online form, and went into some detail about his special needs, only no one seemed to have read. Oh well. Why should Limmud be different from all the other special needs paperwork I dutifully fill out, only to discover that the main information most groups really want to know are 1) Is he allergic to nuts, and 2) What’s my cell number?
I digress. The ages 5-8 childcare room worked out fine since one of the nice teenage babysitters knew Danny from Friendship Circle LA and was comfortable letting him play with all the wooden blocks and books, even if he laid down on the floor and took off his socks and shoes. The other kids stared at first, but seemed just fine with him after awhile.
While Danny was in childcare, I attended two very “grown up” sessions, one with David Siegel, the new Consul General of Israel, talking about shifting the conversation around Israel from the ongoing conflict to the start up successes and innovations coming out from that tiny sliver of land in the Middle East. The other session I went to on my own was the SRO “Stories From the Fringe: A New Play”, which was a reader’s theater presentation, telling the stories of 18 prominent women rabbis, and made me want to laugh and cry, often close together.
I took Danny out of childcare for an early lunch, and then decided to take him with me to the Capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial art dance) workshop. While he was sitting in his oversize stroller, I decided to give the dance steps a try, and figured Danny could just watch from the sidelines. But before I knew it, a lovely young women with henna tattoos (at least I think that’s what they were), wheeled him over to the drum area and helped him play around with those. The dance steps were fun, but when it came time to get more athletic and kick my leg over my partner’s head, and I felt my muscles twinge, I was reminded that I really do need to get more exercise. Instead, Danny and I became drum partners, pounding out the dub-dub-DUB rhythm that came easily to the rest of the group, but required my full focus.
Last, but certainly not least, Danny and I were part of a family panel on Jewish Special Needs called, “Better Together: A Presentation and Panel With Teens Who Have Autism and Other Special Needs” led by my friend and fellow short-person, Elaine Hall, founder of the Miracle Project, and Director of the Vista Inspire Program at Vista Del Mar. The panel consisted of other parents and older teens that we have gotten to know over the years at the Tikvah Program at Valley Beth Shalom and the Miracle Project. We’ve been through a lot together including the thrill of seeing our kids on the stage, having a B’nai Mitzvah and the sadder parts of life such as divorce, illness, even losing a parent. It was both familiar and strange to be taking our “show on the road” and sharing our lives as Jewish families raising children with special needs. Although there wasn’t a huge crowd in the room, it was enough to feel that our issue was finally moving from a sideshow into the center stage.
PS Be sure to read Julie Fax’s excellent and in-depth coverage of young Jewish adults finding their independence at http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/finding_their_place_20120222/
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February 19, 2012 | 1:54 am
Posted by Michelle K. Wolf
I’m coming up on the first anniversary of this blog on March 1st, when I first posted “An Unplanned Journey” with the encouragement of Rob Eshman and support from the technical wizards of JewishJournal.com. Life is easier when someone else builds the template.
When I first started writing the blog in March, 2011, it was hard to know where it would end up – a variation of the many “Mommy” blogs in cyberspace, providing weekly updates on the high and low points of parenting a child with developmental disabilities; an outlet to rant about the bureaucratic idiocy of LAUSD; or a place to cajole, embarrass, and prod the Jewish community into doing more for persons with special needs.
As it turns out, the blog has been all of the above, plus some Jewish holidays, many mentions of Danny’s favorite song “Macarena” and a trip to the White House in which I asked President Obama why he doesn’t have a cat. (I still think this would be a good move to gain the Independent voters in November).
Since 2007, February has been designated Jewish Disability Awareness month nationally, and renamed in Los Angeles as the Inclusion Awareness Month, with an incredible number of great events taking place. Last Wednesday night I was honored to moderate a panel of families who had appeared in the HBO special, “Autism: The Musical” at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum and I marveled at the wide spectrum of participants, from secular to black hat Orthodox, all able to join together to laugh and to cry while watching this moving 2006 documentary. And it’s not late to attend an upcoming event at http://www.jewishla.org/pages/iam
I realized later that as much as I am loving all the awareness raising and events, there is something marginalizing about having to squeeze all that attention into just one month (and a short month at that). Turns out I’m not alone in having mixed feelings about an assigned month. Since 1976, February has been designated Black History Month by every US President, and is also observed in Canada and the UK. Along with all the special films, books and TV specials that occur in February are a group of critics including actor Morgan Freeman who once said in a TV interview, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”
I have to agree with the sentiment behind that quote—I don’t want the Jewish community to only pay attention to the needs of Jews with special needs one month a year, when we are living with those needs 24/7, all year round. We need day school educators to get up to speed on the best practices in special education, rabbis who have the patience to teach Torah to non-Mensa members and congregants who are comfortable with kids or adults who may need to walk around in circles by themselves in the back of the shul.
And most of all, we need to find value with every human being, even those who may appear to be “broken” in some way. In the movie Hugo, the young protagonist, who was taught how to fix clocks by his deceased father, talks about broken machines that are unhappy and want to be fixed. He wonders if this can also apply to people, and (spoiler alert) he helps to create a happy ending by “fixing” one particular older man. By welcoming in people who have special needs into the Jewish community all year round with spiritual, emotional and financial support, we can together “fix” the problem of exclusion and instead, create wholeness and completeness.
February 12, 2012 | 12:11 am
Posted by Michelle K. Wolf
With chocolate hearts and annoying radio ads for pajama-grams (can’t think of a worse present) vying for our attention this week, it’s easy to forget about what love is really all about, and that all of us humans have a strong drive to find love, even when we might least expect it.
When I worked at the Alzheimer’s Association there often stories of people finding new loves while living in assisted living or nursing homes, even if their memories flickered off and on. Most of the time, they were like elementary school crushes, with some hand holding and whispering in corners, but other relationships involved more intimacy if they could find enough privacy.
In Israel, there’s a non-governmental organization called Shalheveth, which provides services for adults with severe physical disabilities, including a program called “Significant Other,” in which adults with severe physical disabilities are given the support and tools they need to have healthy relationships.
As quoted in a recent Jerusalem Post article the Chair of this organization, Miriam Freier, recognizes the need for this population to have all the life choices of any adult, including a romantic relationship.
“Often, severely physically disabled adults are not presented with many opportunities to meet friends, make new acquaintances or find life partners,” says Freier, adding that their physical limitations coupled with social marginalization can often create “a life of severe emotional deprivation and isolation.”
I found out about this unusual program from the Zeh LeZeh blog of the Israel-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which has donated $15,000 to Shaleveth for their “Significant Other” workshop series and couples counseling, in addition to actively promoting inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of Israeli and Jewish life.
Back in Los Angeles, our 17-year-old son with developmental disabilities told me that he wanted to give a “DVD-Spongebob” to a cute gal in his special education class for Valentine’s Day. This young lady is very kind and is on the autistic spectrum. Most of her verbal communication is considered to be “echolalia” in which people reflexively repeat overhead words. In Danny’s case, this means a lot of “Oh My God” and “Sheesh”, not to mention “Macarena”.
I also learned from Danny’s aide that there’s another teenage girl in his special education class with Down syndrome who keeps hugging Danny whenever she gets the chance, but Danny doesn’t seem to reciprocate those feeling at the same level. The take away here is that even when you least expect it, the desire and quest for love is deep and abiding.
PS Spread a little love yourself by signing the Inclusion Pledge at the Los Angeles Federation website. For each signature, one dollar (up to $5,000) will be donated to Jewish special needs inclusion programs.
February 2, 2012 | 11:58 pm
Posted by Michelle K. Wolf
As we celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness Month this February and collectively acknowledge the value of including children and adults with disabilities in all spheres of Jewish life, we can draw much inspiration by the story of Elad Gevandschnaider from Beersheva.
Like most Israeli young adults, Elad, 23, has looked forward to serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) since he was young. “All of my family served in the army and that influenced my decision to enroll,” he is quoted as saying on the Israel Tennis Centers website. But Elad was born with Down syndrome, and is therefore exempt from army service.
Bu he decided to volunteer anyway, beginning with two years of national service in a primary school in the southern part of Israel, and now Elad has just learned that he has been accepted to serve two more years at an Israeli army equipment base and in the spring, he will be recruited as a soldier/volunteer in an official military ranking position. Elad is the only current Southern IDF volunteer, and is part of a total national IDF volunteer group of 15 individuals.
His family attributes much of his success and determination to his participation in the Israel Tennis Centers, where he has been playing tennis since the age of 17, as part of their extensive Special Tennis Programs at 14 Centers across Israel, serving 350 individuals. Elad will soon be traveling to Florida for three weeks to participate in exhibition matches in order to raise funds for the Israel Tennis Centers (“ITC”) and their special needs children programs – marking the first time that a player with special needs will travel to the United States and represent the Tennis Center Foundation in such an event.
Elad has won medals in international Special Olympics competitions including a very emotional moment for his Polish-born father, Yossi, when Elad won a silver medal in Warsaw, Poland in February 2010.
In the World Games for Special Olympics in Athens, Greece in June, 2011 Elad was one of four players representing Israel from various Israel Tennis Centers. Two of the other players were Arab children who trained at the Tennis Centers in Jerusalem, Muhammad Kunbar and Jafar Tawil. It was the first time that Arab sportsmen represented Israel at an international Special Olympics event. Elad won the silver medal in singles and to make that experience extra-cool, he won the bronze doubles medal with Muhammad Kunbar.
After the Army, Elad wants to seek employment in the private sector and he has a girlfriend that he met while participating in the Special Tennis Olympics.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
PS Take the Inclusion pledge and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles will donate $1 toward inclusion programs in our community for each unique signature gathered during February 2012 (up to $5,000).