Normally, a two-day run is nothing to boast about — but no one who saw the new musical “A Chorus Line of Another Kind” at the Highways Performance space in Santa Monica would say it was anything but a resounding success.
Just try asking Connie and Harvey Lapin to recap 44 years as parent activists in the world of autism. In hyperactive tag-team, the couple bursts forth with stories and ideas, only to interrupt themselves and one another with still more anecdotes, ideas and accomplishments.
Students at the Media Enrichment Academy in Sherman Oaks often arrive with a variety of labels: Autistic. Isolated. Troublemaker.
“Keys! Keys!” David Weisbord says as he tugs at his father’s hand, pulling him toward the door.
Tamir Appel scampers to his room to pull out a photo album of his latest trip to visit family in Israel. He sets it on the dining room table, where some of his housemates are gathered to talk about their daily life at the Ryzman Family Group Home for Men in Valley Village, one of three run by the Etta Israel Center, the only Jewish group homes on the West Coast.
Lauren Levine is settling in with a group of friends apartment to watch “American Idol,” when a look of panic comes over her face. She rummages around, finds her keys and darts out.“I left the hair thing on,” she says when she returns, breathless, from her own apartment downstairs. “I was straightening Jasmine’s hair before we came up here, and I forgot to turn it off. Wow. That was close.” Levine has wide blue eyes accentuated with sparkly eye shadow, and her voice is spiced with a sense of interested wonder.
Jews and people with autism have a lot in common, if you ask Ezra Fields-Meyer. As an autistic young man, he knows he has a good memory and likes to repeat things. As a Jew, he’s noticed similar qualities, which he pointed out during his bar mitzvah speech a few years ago.
Sometimes life presents us with challenges so arresting, so shattering that they change everything. This is the tale of a series of such moments, which began with my son’s diagnosis with autism, sending me into a tailspin and sundering my conventional ideas of God and Torah.
" . . . As grandparents, we go through a range of feelings. Some of these are triggered by the child's behavior and how the parents react to it. Grandparents are frightened and upset that their grandchild is experiencing these problems . . . "
"You hear so much from autism organizations about what a horrible disease this is and how the parents have been robbed of their children, yada, yada, yada, and I suppose on a certain level that is true," Jacob told me, typing the words on a special keyboard that allows him to fully express his ideas. "But I refuse to live the rest of my life believing I am a defective human being. I have gifts and talents and challenges just like everyone else, and I have the same desire for connection and a need to be treated with dignity and respect."
Next time you see someone like me at your synagogue or at your event, remember that they probably feel really lonely and you could be the person to make their day by smiling at them and letting them know that they exist.
Wyatt Isaacs recently celebrated his bar mitzvah through Nes Gadol, a Vista Del Mar and The Miracle Project program that helps children with varying degrees of learning challenges become sons and daughters of the commandment
A collaborative project of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Family Service and seven other Jewish community agencies, HaMercaz (which means "the center") assists families with children up to age 21 who have developmental and learning disabilities such as autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or mental retardation. The two-year-old program serves as a "one-stop-shop" for families, providing guidance, support, education and referrals. Programs include a toll-free warmline; support groups for mothers, fathers and grandparents; and referrals to agencies that can provide assistance, such as interest-free loans or parent respite.
It's a typical Wednesday afternoon on the bimah at West Los Angeles' Vista Del Mar, a onetime Jewish orphanage that evolved into one of the nation's largest, most comprehensive child services centers. Cantor Steve Puzarne and Neal Katz are in the campus' aging sanctuary as part of Nes Gadol, an effort launched by Vista Del Mar last February in conjunction with The Miracle Project to help children with varying degrees of learning challenges become sons and daughters of the commandment.
Last fall, I started working with Franklin, a 7-year-old autistic boy. My job was to help shape the child's behavioral and social patterns, promoting ones healthy to his development, while curbing ones that hinder him.
For several weeks, I had been visiting Nathan, a 6-year-old boy diagnosed with autism. We had been brought together through the Conejo Valley Friendship Circle, an organization that extends warmth to families in the community that have children with special needs.
"Identify yourself," Seth says when meeting someone new.
The Chasidic Reb Nachman of Bratslav tells of a king's son who goes mad: he believes he is a turkey.
The boy removes all his clothes, spends all his time under a table and refuses to eat normal food. Distraught and alarmed, his father summons in all manner of experts, but none can cure the boy.
His tale of disappointment turns into a tale of revisioning and change: After a long time, a wise man arrives at the palace, and asks to see the prince. The wise man joins the boy under the table, and declares himself to be a turkey. Little by little, the two become comfortable with one another, and gradually the man encourages the turkey-prince to put on his clothes, then eat human food and finally to join the rest of the family. In this manner, the Chasidic master says, the wise man cures the prince.
Joey Schwartzman has a passion for clocks. He is also crazy about street addresses, dates and numbers of any kind. And he has one more enthusiasm not often seen in 15-year-old boys: he loves reading Torah and Haftorah at his synagogue, Westchester's B'nai Tikvah Congregation.
What makes this truly remarkable is the fact that Joey has been diagnosed as autistic. A few years back, he was likely to disrupt services, or fall asleep on a couch outside the sanctuary. But he was fortunate to be part of a warm-hearted community that has known his family for three generations. As his bar mitzvah approached, a congregant with a background in psychological counseling devised a special Hebrew school curriculum for him and another boy with autism.
In 1987, when Joel Hornstein stood before over 200 congregants, family members and friends to recite his Bar Mitzvah Torah portion in English and Hebrew, he had only been able to speak for a few years. No one expected a child with autism, or any other significant disability, to undertake the rigorous training in a foreign language needed to prepare for this significant Jewish rite of passage. Jewish special education was almost nonexistent. Yet Joel's family wanted to provide him with the opportunity to declare his value and dignity before God and their community, and celebrate his journey out of the solitude of autism.
Two recent conferences held in the Jewish community -- one on autism, the other on a wide scope of disabilities -- demonstrated the difficulties of reconciling research and reality when it comes to helping individuals with special needs.
arbara and Sheldon Helfing never expected to have one autistic child, much less two. Their son Leland, now 5, was born prematurely and began showing signs of a neurological disorder before reaching his 1st birthday.
Today, however, Tony and Barbara have new hope for Robert.
"This is a story about my brother, Moriel. Moriel has autism.