Once Danny was enrolled in a government-funded special needs class at age 3, we sought out Jewish programs and services that would meet his needs. My husband and I both had strong (very different) Jewish backgrounds and enjoyed cherished Jewish camp and travel experiences as teens.
My husband’s parents were leaders of their Conservative synagogue in the Philadelphia suburbs; he went to Camp Ramah, USY Israel Pilgrimage and USY Eastern European Pilgrimage in the 70s near the height of the Cold War (a good story for a different blog…).
My parents were Labor Zionists, married in Israel in 1949, and a founding family of a Reform synagogue in North Orange County. I went to many different Jewish summer camps and a summer trip to Israel with BBYO (B’nai B’rith Youth).
At age 6, our daughter is at a public elementary school and goes to a Hebrew-speaking after-school program run by the Israeli Scouts. Our house is kosher and Israeli kid songs fill the air. It is inconceivable for Danny not to receive a Jewish/Hebrew education.
But the after-school religious school program at our shul doesn’t start until age 5, so for Danny we have to look elsewhere. After much asking around, we finally discover the Shaare Tikvah Hebrew School for Developmentally Disabled students, ages 3-18 at Valley Beth Shalom, fifteen miles from our house.
The program is once a week on Sunday mornings. Danny is enrolled and we drive him there on Sunday mornings (traffic usually moving at good clip) and we figure out how to work in a workout at the gym. We are glad that VBS doesn’t require temple membership to participate. Danny learns Hebrew words, songs, and Jewish holidays and generally has a good time. As parents, we begin, for the first time, to meet other Jewish parents in the same situation.
We attend the Bar Mitzvah of a cousin on the east coast and my father-in-law says, “Just think, Danny will be Bar Mitzvah ten years from now”. I remember wondering at the time if he would have a Bar Mitzvah at all. (He did at age 14).
I stop going to Tot Shabbat programs with Danny at our shul for awhile – it’s just too painful to watch his same-age peers talking, dancing and interacting while Danny is either rolling around on the carpet or whining.
Years fly by, and we keep going to Shaare Tikvah on Sunday mornings. By the time Danny is 10, there are a lot of new Jewish special needs programs such as Friendship Circle Los Angeles and the Camp Ramah Special Needs Family Shabbatons..
Our friend Elaine Hall, whom we meet through our daughter’s drama program, has started The Miracle Project, a theater program for kids with special needs and their typically developing siblings and peers (all beautifully documented in her book, Now I See the Moon) . Turns out Danny is a (kosher) ham He learns to respond to the Director’s cues and says his parts right on time.
That summer, we really feel the need for a break and decide to send Danny to an overnight summer camp for a week. After much research, we find that the only viable option is a community non-profit serving children and adults with disabilities called Ability First, which at the time operates a beautiful camp in Malibu with beachfront views and a swimming pool.
All of the staff is hand-picked and well-trained. They can handle kids in wheelchairs and those who have behavioral issues. We don’t have to pay for an aide, as we later do at most Jewish settings.
We bring Danny up to camp along with kosher hotdogs, boxes of his nutritional supplements and many medications that we give to the two full-time nurses. After a quiet, relaxing week, we drive back to camp and hear that loved the singing and the campfires but got homesick at night. His counselor, Scotty, gives him a goodbye hug and hands us a scrapbook. Driving home along that slender ribbon of Pacific Coast Highway, I read aloud what Scotty has written in the scrapbook: “Danny, it was great having you in the bunk. Yours in Christ, Scotty”
Coming next: What does “inclusion” mean and why it needs to happen more in the Jewish community