I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.
Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support -- and offers support -- across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.
Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges -- cerebral palsy, autism, Down's syndrome and others -- are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.
The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.
One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.
"She wants to show you her writing," said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn't form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines -- no words, no letters -- but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.
In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it's only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.
Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel -- as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room -- the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn't settle for mere pity.
One of the evening's honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.
"Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program," Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.
Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O'Connell to protest the decrease in services. "Lawyers can't save the day," she said. "Only parents can save the day."
The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students' abilities, working through -- and around -- their deficits.
The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent "typical" children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can't the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?
A simple, brilliant idea -- waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.
For more information, go to www.etta.org