This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
For me, it was in third grade.
I was in the bathroom and there was screaming that was not really words, but utterances, from behind another stall door. I could hear crying and knew something was not going well. I asked if someone needed help and there was just banging on the door. I was (and still am) a short person, so I crawled under the stall … and there was Sylvia.
Sylvia was in the self-contained special education classroom in my elementary school. In 1978, this was the way schools were set up and mainstream kids like me had very little interaction with kids in the self-contained classes. Sylvia was what we now would refer to as moderately developmentally delayed; she had some verbal skills but no real connections and no ability to make a sentence. There she was … just standing there … all ready to get out of the bathroom stall, but she had accidentally locked herself in. I unlocked it. We went to wash our hands and then it dawned on me that I should walk her back to her classroom to let the teacher know what had happened, since she was so distressed just moments earlier. I walked her to the classroom, told the teacher what happened and went to leave. As I did, Sylvia ran up and hugged me. I felt great about what had happened and moved on with my day.
Later that week, we were on the playground at recess and this boy, Marcus, came up and hugged me and told me that I was his friend now since I was Sylvia’s friend. Marcus was nearly six feet tall in fifth grade and also had developmental challenges, but he was able to communicate more effectively than Sylvia. Marcus just hugged me … every single day on the playground for that entire year. And every single day on the playground the year after, until he graduated and went to the junior high.
Maybe it was because I have some connection with people who want to be understood, maybe it was because I love to communicate with people in any way and felt like Sylvia must really need someone to help her to communicate, maybe it was because I liked it when I felt important by helping another person. Whatever the reason, there it was … my love for people with learning challenges and developmental differences. As clear as day, in third grade.
I continued this path as I grew older: I volunteered for kids with special needs in my town, befriended the kids in camp that no one else really wanted to hang out with, and even got a scholarship in senior year of high school for pursuing a career in special education. I went off to college and thought I would be a teacher, but once there decided that social work was more my style. All through college I coached five different sports in the Special Olympics (where one athlete asked me if I knew that, even though I did not have special needs, I was the worst player on our basketball team … and I was the coach), was head of the Students for Special Needs program, and did other volunteer work. I found an AMAZING Jewish camp to work at for children who had challenges, and found a mentor there that was inspiring. Ten years later, when he left, I got his job running the camp and continued to do so for about a decade. Now I am blessed to be working in another camp that is all about inclusion, and special needs inclusion is one part of this.
I would guess that I have worked with over a thousand young people and adults with special needs – all types of special needs – in a camping setting and I must tell you that it NEVER once dawned on me that this was a big deal. I mean, my sister loved to work with clothing and went into fashion, my brother loved to make deals and became an attorney, and I loved to help people so I went into social work with a focus on special needs. I know this will sound cliché, but I learn more from someone with challenges than they will ever learn from me. I get to be there for a family when they think no one is going to “get them” and their situation. I learn about acceptance of people’s strengths and weaknesses and that it is ok to have both. I gain an appreciation for things that are going well and a tolerance for things when they are not.
I know one thing for sure: no matter what I do for my entire career, the most important thing I ever did was crawl under a bathroom stall and unlock a door for my friend Sylvia.
I am not quite sure when I first started to understand the notion of homosexuality. When Billie Jean King was forced to come out, I distinctly recall asking my parents about it and them telling me that she was “with another woman” and that woman was telling her secrets to the world. I remember having this strong reaction about how unfair it was for someone to tell another’s secrets. As I grew older, most of what I learned about LGBT issues was tied to the AIDS crisis of the 80s. And then, as time passed, it became less of a “thing” I knew about and more of a reality in my life. There was a cousin, who was gay, and died from AIDS. A friend from high school who came out and we all accepted. A close girlfriend from Jewish sleepaway camp who came to me struggling with coming out and wanted my acceptance. In the course of 25 years, there has been a transformation from when being gay was this abstract thing in my life to being just a way of life. I am pretty sure that the planet around me has grown with me in this area too. I mean: same-sex marriage 25 years ago? People would never have even understood why it was a civil rights situation.
I am a pretty liberal person, probably more liberal than most. So it is not a real shock that much of this is totally a “non-issue” for me. However, I am always shocked by how much I have to learn and how completely encompassed I am in my own little world. When that friend from sleepaway camp came out to me when I was 22, I was surprised. She wanted my approval so badly and I was not sure why. And I didn’t know how to explain that my surprise was just surprise, not disappointment or judgment. It took us a few weeks and then everything was back to normal between us. Today I am still friends with her as well as and her partner who she has been living very happily with for over ten years.
When I got my Masters in Social Work and Jewish Communal Service, there were plenty of LGBT people there and also plenty of people who thought this was wrong. I was shocked by the ignorance of those who thought this was a moral decision. I considered myself an advocate of anyone who needed me to speak up. That being said, I was still pretty separate from the LGBT world.
Then I had the chance to go to a Keshet training. WOW. I was one ignorant person. I was the only “straight” person and I was completely lost in the conversation a lot of the time. I needed to know what letters stood for what, that there were issues like why getting married was a political and financial choice as opposed to just some loving decision, why parenting was different when everything was showing your child that your family was not the “norm.” I was able to learn that people were struggling with such simple issues that I gave no thought to: what to tell their grandparents about their partner, when to come out to certain people, what companies were innately against the family they loved, how going to a public restroom was filled with angst for people who felt trapped in another body. All of this was just stuff I did … and took for granted.
I felt out of place. But I am a question-asker, and ask I did. It became apparent to me that being an ally of others required more than my mere acceptance. It required me to stand up, speak out, say something, look at the world through someone else’s eyes.
That was five years ago, and I now consider myself an advocate for LGBT issues. It has changed what I let people say in front of me and how I parent. It has let me know that there are people struggling with issues that are so deep and so involved for them that I cannot understand, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and let them know that my world is a place where I will not only accept who they are but celebrate it. I will not allow people to be anything less than welcoming in my presence. I will cheer the camper who needs to figure out how to come out to the bunk and I will gladly explain to a parent about the transgender staff member we have working for us.
I am so proud that the LGBT community answered my questions and gave me a safe place to ask them. I am even prouder that as the counselors and other staff at our camp talk about these things, it is almost a “non-issue.” I learn so much from these 19- and 20-year-olds who just see this as the most normal part of life. Many of them have no idea who Billie Jean King is and they certainly can’t see why sharing someone’s secret would be on the news. They are infuriated by homophobia and champion marriage equality. They give my daughter a chance to see things from such a different perspective that she truly has no idea that there are people who think it is wrong for some people to be married or have children. As she grows, I am thrilled to share my anger and disbelief at those people’s stupidity with her.
I know that many people say they are accepting or tolerant, but I want more from all of us. I want celebration of differences. I want people to be comfortable to ask and answer questions about differences. I want to be a person who lives and works in a place where friends and strangers know that I am supportive of all people. I am working toward this each and every day. Don’t get me wrong: some days I mess up on a pronoun or I say something that is completely heterosexist. But as time passes, I can feel the difference happening and I am so lucky to be in such an accepting community like Camp JRF where I can ask and have questions answered, where I am made to feel comfortable even in my ignorance, and where I am celebrating people who love and care for each other and themselves.
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Recently, my daughter was asked to write about a small moment for school. Not just any small moment – one that she realized later was important. She came home at a loss. What was she going to write about? She was not just confused, she was actually annoyed. She said: “What if I don’t want to share a small moment? What if I want to keep it to myself?” I laughed … not just for the simplicity of her question, but because if you know me at all you know there has never been a thought I have chosen to keep to myself. The notion that she revels so much in her own privacy is like a foreign language to me.
I often look at my daughter and think: “We (my husband and I) have done a pretty decent job at this parenting thing so far!” She does well in school, mostly listens, respects people, is great at sports, feels safe in the planet, and has self-esteem that I marvel at. Listening to her tell me all the moments from the past summer that seemed small but meant so much to her and her friends was bittersweet. I love that she has funny personal jokes with other nine year old girls, she sings Hebrew songs as though Katy Perry wrote them, and I am thrilled when she says: “my counselor said…” or “at camp we learned about….”As we were talking about ideas for her small moments project, it became VERY apparent that most of the moments in her life that she found so pivotal, I was not there for. So many of them happened at camp when she was being herself with her friends and role models and I was not engineering her growth and development.
Well, mostly I am thrilled. Sometimes I am sad. I can’t believe how much effect this experience is having on her becoming the person she will eventually be. I am so blessed that this place exists. A place where my daughter is learning to love herself, her traditions, her version of Jewish life; truly she is becoming a young person with strong ideals and opinions. That part I was ready for. I wasn’t ready for the other stuff. You know, her realizing who is “cool” and who is not as “cool,” her understanding of her own body image, being able to comprehend where she fits into a social structure. Understanding relationships that will one day lead to marriages of all sorts. Learning about her connection to the earth, what she is willing to give up and not give up for the sake of others. Figuring out when to give in and when to stand up. I mean all the small moment stuff; the stuff that DEFINES who you will be.
What I realize is that residential camp gives her a secure place to learn this without me (and her father) being there. That alone may be why it is so incredible to her. She gets to be her own version of herself – what she wants to present and share. I am not sure people who have not experienced residential camp can truly comprehend the value of this. I am sure that if this one summer is any indication of the future, I am going to be in for an interesting ride. One where my daughter is in a roller coaster cart on her own and at times lets me in to see the small moment but, overall, creates her own reality, learns her own lessons, and celebrates her own triumphs.
I often wonder if all roads lead us to the place where we are supposed to be. I don’t mean this to sound quite as philosophical as it might come across; I merely mean that there are so many moments in my life that are meant to be. The Chinese have an idea about this: it is called the red thread. This is the notion that when a child is born an invisible red thread connects the child to their past, present and future. As time passes all that is fated to be will happen.
I have a special place in my heart and soul for this thought. It started when I was 14 and a family who was Jewish asked me to babysit their adorable little girl. April had been adopted from Korea two years earlier and she and her parents were in the process of adopting her sister. I was babysitting for their family when little sister Jenna arrived and I continued to babysit for them through high school and well into college. The fact that their children were Asian and Jewish was something I noticed in a celebratory way. I loved the combination of the Korean masks that they had in their house and the menorah that sat right by it. It all made sense to me and seemed perfectly “normal.” I remember the girls going to Korean camp and having their bat-mitzvahs and recently have been blessed enough to watch April stand under the chuppah with her new husband. Asian and Jewish … it just seemed to fit.
Fast forward 20 years and my husband and I are talking about the choices we have in child getting. I have to be honest, for me the decision to adopt was very easy. I had this great example and well, it seemed to me that all the work in trying to have a child biologically was not really worth it if there were children who needed a home and we needed to be parents…. So adoption was the route we took… For my husband and me, this meant going to China in the winter of 2005 and adopting our Madeline Rose Hai Yan Chaya Shifra Nowack.
Fast forward seven years. I consciously chose a place to work that had a good deal of racial diversity for the Jewish community. And let’s be honest, racial diversity and American Jewry do not always go hand in hand. So, I chose to work at Camp JRF because there were other kids who looked like my daughter. There are kids of many races, and many different family styles at Camp JRF so I knew our daughter would fit in at this camp as much as she could in any place where most of the people look nothing like you. I was not prepared for Amy though.
Amy is a stunning 15 year old girl who was adopted from China in the 90s. She is part of the chalutzim, the early families who went to China when things were not as open as they are now. Amy is a smart, easy going girl who never really seemed phased by much at camp. A kid from the Midwest who never got caught up in the drama. So when she walked into my office and closed the door and started to cry I was shocked. She told me how I was the only one who could understand: someone had said something rude about Asians in her presence, not even connecting that she was Asian since, as this person said, “Well I mean you are Jewish…” And she was upset. Not even because her feelings were hurt but because she did not know how to feel. I looked at her and thought: “Oh …. This is that moment… When the red thread brought you to my office…”
We spoke for a while and we tried to solve all the racial issues of the Jewish community. We came up with the idea that nothing was going to be solved for a while. We spoke about how stupid people can be and how confusing things are and how even in the safest of places, like camp, reality is always there.
When Amy went back to her bunk she was better. Nothing was solved, but she knew she had a place to come to when she felt a bit weird about all of the stuff.
I, however, shut the door to my office and cried. I cried for all the kids who look different in one way or another and we as a Jewish community don’t remember that they are part of us. I cried for the moments when someone says something in front of me about others and assumes because I am Jewish I am going to agree with them. I cried because, truth be told, this was exactly what I had feared, that my decision to adopt our daughter and raise her Jewish would somehow leave her on the outside. Then I composed myself and celebrated. How great is it that my daughter can look to older campers and see someone who looks like her. That in her Hebrew school class there are three Asian Jewish girls – not all adopted. That the world gets smaller every day and that there are places all over where she can feel comfortable.
Mostly, I celebrated that the red thread had lead Amy to my office and Maddie to our home and that somehow this puzzle of race and culture and religion was going to be okay.
Sheira Director-Nowack is the associate director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
As a Jewish camping professional for the past 20 years, I have been cheer-leading, encouraging and convincing parents of the benefits of sleep away camp for their children. I have been proudly telling people how almost all of my wedding party went to camp with me (and there were eight bridesmaids…don’t ask); that when my father passed away (I was 15), the first people at his funeral were my camp friends and they made sitting shiva a less awkward experience for such a young person. These young women and men changed my life. They taught me about being proud of who I was/am, they lived through the struggles of adolescence with me and I am VERY proud to say I keep in touch with the 30 women from my age group in camp.
At 40, I am now the proud mother of the most amazing 8 1/2 year old ever to walk this planet (no bias there of course) and she will be going to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. I mean, she has been at camp her whole life: she learned to walk at camp and when we adopted her from China, the whole camp and all the parents of our campers cheered. The Jewish camping community has been a constant in helping me and my husband raise our daughter. This summer though, it will be different… She will be living in a bunk, away from us, for the first time. (By “away from us” I mean less than a mile from my camp house…) This has been a HUGE learning experience!
I think to all the parents over the years who gave me their child’s specific regimen of face washing as I smiled and told them it would all be ok. To the parents that tried to explain every detail about their child to me so we could encourage their son to swim or their daughter to enjoy art. I think to the parents of a child who had special needs and going over their child’s medication regimen for like 40 minutes while I wrote the information down … even though it was all given to our medication distributor and our nurses. I think to the parent who had to ask me for financial aid to try to give their children a Jewish experience in an otherwise not so Jewish world. I think of all the hopeful moments when parents wished that this camp experience would help their child become a better person, a better Jew, a better anything, and I am humbled.
Truth be told, I am petrified for my daughter and for our family. My husband and I waited for three years to adopt her from China and now someone else is going to be taking care of her for the summer? Someone who might not know that she likes ketchup on her hotdogs and BBQ sauce on her chicken nuggets? Some wonderfully intelligent young woman (who I interviewed and hired!) who might not be aware of what “that face” looks like… the one right before she starts to cry. WHAT AM I DOING?!?!
Then the other part of me comes into play… the part of me that is THRILLED for her to come into her own surrounded by loving and caring Jewish values. The part of me that knows that the people she will meet will influence her to become someone more than who she already is. She is going to learn to LOVE to be in a Jewish world, share her identity, her interests, and her ideas with other kids. She is going to gain more independence, learn about others and herself and have influences that I could never provide her. She is going to have strong young men and women to look up to and to role model. She is going to learn to brush her own hair, make her own bed, clean up after herself, pick her own food, laugh at what SHE thinks is funny, roll her eyes at the people in charge, dance in the rain and ignore the adults as she giggles with her friends because of something RIDICULOUSLY silly that someone said.
The notion that others will have an effect on her is what I think I get a tad nervous about for a moment. I think to the gorgeous little girl who they put in our arms in an orphanage, and I am teary-eyed about her growing up. I mean, I knew it was going to happen but it seems to have gone EXTREMELY fast. The reality is that someone once told me everyday your children are growing away from you and into themselves. This step into the sleep away camp world is just a more concrete way of seeing that. I think again to all the parents who are crying as they roll out of camp. I think to how happy I am when they leave and we are just us…the camp world…ready to do all these incredible things for children…and I think perhaps I have been a tad hard on them. I think that I am going to have more patience and more unconditional love to my fellow mommies and daddies who really just want their most precious and loved child to just be ok.
I think the most important lesson I have learned in this is that we are all always growing. I trust my camp sooooo much. However, I will never again think that a parent is giving me too much information, I will never again wonder why Mr. So-and-So is calling me for the fifth time this week, I will never again giggle inside when a parent tells me they only got three letters this week from their daughter or tells me that the counselor looks awfully young and am I sure she/he can handle their child. I have made myself a promise that I will share with all of you: I will not call myself everyday to see how my daughter is doing (as I am the person who speaks to all the parents); I will not ask her rosh eidah (unit leader) if she is washing her hair; and when I see her at breakfast in some outfit that looks like she got dressed in the dark, I will not cry … well at least not in front of her….