I recently had the pleasure of touring the NY School for the Deaf in White Plains, NY with Alexis Kashar, the president of its board. Alexis is an attorney specializing in special education and disability rights and has dedicated herself to activism and pro bono work on behalf of the deaf.
For a few hours, I had a glimpse into the world of people who are deaf. Alexis is Deaf, she uses sign language and also speaks so I found it relatively easy to communicate with her. I had a few moments at the school where a child was attempting to communicate with me and I had no idea what they were saying. It felt a bit uneasy. If there were words that I didn’t understand I asked Alexis to repeat them and I found it quite helpful when she signed (although I do not speak American Sign Language).
Many of the students at the NY School for the Deaf have moved out of the public school system and into the school because they were not being successfully educated there. Some students found it difficult to learn and to make friends because they were not able to have meaningful dialogue with teachers and students from the hearing world.
For Jewish children who are Deaf the experience is similar but also comes with a few additional layers. When a Jewish child leaves the education system, they find that the Deaf school has very few other Jewish students. Their access to Jewish schools, synagogues and Jewish programming is very limited. If the family is very involved in the Jewish community and if they have access to interpreters, then perhaps their child will be a part of that community. For the majority of Jews who are Deaf, that is not the case. Alexis feels that as a community we need to bring Jews back home. If we can ensure that Jews who are deaf will have access to Jewish life through accommodations such as sign language interpreters in synagogues, federation events, camp programs then not only will be working to bring them back home but their families will come with them. It is what Alexis calls the Ripple Effect.
When I asked Alexis to share her thoughts on how we could best serve children who are deaf at camp her answer was, “It is not cut and dry.” Alexis grew up attending public school and summer camp in the hearing world. She understands the benefits of that upbringing for a person who is deaf but Alexis feels that a child can also benefit from being in a world where they relate to other people who are deaf. They will be among role models who understand their deaf background and communicate in their native language.
Children who are deaf have joined Jewish camps in the past, but what Alexis is suggesting is that we first focus on what would best meet the needs of the children who are deaf and then go from there. One idea would be to have children who are deaf live in cabins with other campers who are deaf. These cabins could be located on the grounds of any Jewish camp so that the children would still have access to the exact same activities and experiences available at camp. They would be a part of the larger community and attend the same programming. They could be fully included throughout the day. Alexis further suggested that there could be programs tailor made for the campers who are deaf that the hearing campers would be invited to participate in. A play performance would be a good example. There might even be campers who are hearing involved as actors in the play.
As we have noted in other contexts, the term we are seeking is full inclusion. For a deaf camper, this doesn’t mean being present but unable to communicate, and it must not mean being merely on the same campus as the fuller camping program. It must be an atmosphere that provides the tools and peers for communication, challenge and exploration like any other camper.
For example, at Camp L’man Achai, one of the camps of the FJC network, there is a one program for boys who are deaf. The program was a great success in 2014. The boys had a Jewish experience in a totally supportive environment that was specially designed with their needs in mind. They also had full access to the hearing community at camp. That was not an issue.
During the school year there are many reasons why a student who is deaf might prefer environments that are less inclusive, but this must not happen at the sacrifice of Jewish involvement. The unique strengths of Jewish summer camping, with its informal educational tools, is a perfect place to break down those barriers and bring Jewish campers who are deaf into the fold. Visiting with Alexis helped me to understand how that may be made possible, and how important, that is.
When I left the school, I felt invigorated and I also felt that I had missed out. I would love to be able to say that I grew up in a world where I had children of all disabilities in my classrooms or in my summer programs and that I had a good friend who also happened to be deaf. There is no doubt that having close ties and experiencing community with a diverse group of people broadens our horizons in so many ways. Our Jewish community is quite diverse though it may not seem so because we have not yet achieved our goal of making it as open an as welcoming as it needs to be so that all Jews will feel that they are always able to come back home.
“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” -William Arthur Ward
One of my most amazing camp moments happened on a beautiful Shabbat afternoon. On this particular Saturday, I was leading a shiur (lesson) for our younger campers where we went on a short hike to one of our upper meadows that overlooks camp. Once we got to the top of the meadow, I asked the campers to find a quiet spot not too far away but far enough away so that they could just be by themselves. Once there, I challenged them to focus in on all their different senses – what did they hear, see, smell, and feel? I asked them all to take in these observations and come up with prayers about things they appreciated. After several minutes, I called everyone back together to reflect on what they noticed during their mini solo experience and gave them an opportunity to share their prayers with the group. After several campers shared some nice observations and prayers with the us, I was feeling pretty satisfied that the kids had really taken something away from this exercise. But then something unexpected happened that totally blew me away. The last camper to offer up a reflection on the solo was a boy from our youngest cabin group. He told us all that during his solo he had written a song about all the wonderful things he noticed and that he was going to share it with us right then and there. And then he did. The boy sang us his prayer song. I can’t remember the tune or the words that he sang that afternoon but what I do remember is that it was simply beautiful and I was so grateful to be a part of and share in that moment.
Gratitude is an incredibly important aspect of living a healthy and fulfilling life. At camp we help children practice this skill on many levels – saying thank you after being served food in the dining hall, appreciating the different campers that make up their cabin group, pointing out all the natural beauty of our campsite during the activity day, taking part in prayer services, and even creating your own prayers. Being grateful and expressing what we are thankful for really elevates everything in our lives and makes what would otherwise be ordinary extraordinary.
With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I welcome you to give thought and attention to articulating what you are thankful for on a daily basis and ask your children to do the same. Make your own “family gratitude challenge” and see how this simple practice enriches your life and turns fairly mundane things into blessings.
Watching the final outs of the seventh game of the World Series last month, I couldn’t help wondering whether the San Francisco Giants’ left-handed pitching star, Madison Bumgarner, was Jewish. I texted a friend to ask what he thought. This is a silly, parochial little game of mine, one pretty much ruined these days by Google. Bumgarner is not Jewish. You can indeed look it up, as Casey Stengel might have said. Still, it’s the kind of speculation I’ve been indulging in since I was a kid; since another left-handed ace, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch in a World Series game because it was Yom Kippur. I remember being inexplicably proud back then, feeling the curious sense of allegiance that comes with discovering you’re part of a tribe and, better yet, you have your very own champion. The feeling is ancient, even primitive, and has its dark side, of course. But its appeal is hard to deny.
For instance, when my son Jonah returned from Camp B’nai Brith last summer, we learned he had been on the green team for various activities. We knew this because he wore his green t-shirt to bed the first few nights he was home. This is an unusual sort of attachment to others for Jonah, who is on the autism spectrum, and one we are grateful he had the chance to experience at camp.
Last month, I chronicled some of the more isolating treatment my wife, Cynthia, and I have endured over the years when we’re out with Jonah. But there was another story I wanted to share about receiving a very different kind of treatment. It didn’t seem to fit in the previous blog. It fits here, though.
In September, Jonah and I went to the bakery on a mission. We were to buy a dessert that was nut-free, a dessert we could then bring to a house where people suffered from severe nut allergies. As a result, I was being extra careful, studying the display case where the cakes and pastries were kept. In the meantime, Jonah was standing at the counter, in front of the clerk, who had shown up to serve us. Jonah was involved in his own kind of study, which is to say he was staring at the brownies directly behind the clerk.
This was, coincidentally, the same moment I decided I needed some help making my choice and I called out to the clerk. “Does the chocolate cake contain nuts?” I asked, once I’d caught his eye.
But he ignored me. The clerk, a tall, handsome young man, seemed not especially interested in doing his job. So I asked my question again. This time he looked right at me, glared actually, with an expression full of unconcealed contempt. When he looked away it was to turn to Jonah and ask my son if he could help him. Jonah didn’t say anything. No doubt, he was thinking of what strategy he could use to convince me to buy him a brownie.
“We’re together,” I finally said, patting Jonah on the shoulder. The clerk’s dark expression lightened gradually. He told me all the cakes were nut-free and I could choose whichever one I wanted. When I was paying, he apologized for his dirty look. He also explained the reason for it. As far as he was concerned, he had been waiting on Jonah and I was pushing in line in front of him.
“I have an older sister who has special needs and I don’t like to see people like her taken advantage of,” he said. “I have seen it way too many times.” I knew exactly what he was talking about and immediately felt a kinship with this young man I’d just met. I think I saw his eyes well up; I know my mine had.
Then as we were leaving the bakery, the clerk called Jonah over and handed him a small brown bag. It had a brownie inside. “It’s on the house,” he said. It was a tiny, touching gesture. And it also felt like more than that. Like we had discovered we were on the same team, part of the same tribe. Most of all, I was proud of him for defending his sister and my son – for being his champion. I felt a little like I was watching Sandy Koufax take to the mound all over again.
In his prize-winning book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon writes about kids with a wide variety of disabilities and specials needs, including autism. The book took Solomon 11 years to write and what started out as the story of the differences that have so often divided and isolated us ended up being the story of how “difference unites us.” So many more of us than ever.
These days, Solomon adds, “The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”
It’s only November, but I am already hearing the buzz of kids at Kiddush lunch talking about their plans for the summer. One particular young lady spent about a half an hour with me asking all of her most pressing questions as she mentally prepares for her first summer at Jewish sleep away camp. She wants to know what she should pack, what she can wear, will the girls be open to having a new person in their bunk, do the boys have payos –Hebrew for sidelocks or sidecurls, and will there also be other kids at camp who attend public school. What she was really getting at was the following: Will I fit in? Will the other campers and counselors look like me? Will I be at a disadvantage? Will I have fun? Fortunately, this 6th grader is very articulate. She is aware of her feelings and can ask for help in preparing for this big step in her childhood. She has already asked for some time to sit down with me again in the spring to further prepare and she has asked me to speak to her mom to provide any information I think would be important for them to know.
On another Shabbat, I had a conversation with a parent who has never experienced Jewish camping at all. His child has never attended a Jewish day camp and the family has never visited a sleep away camp. What this parent does know, is that every summer almost all of the children over the age of eight disappear from the halls and the sanctuary of the synagogue. They all go away for four to eight weeks to Jewish summer camp. And he knows when they return they are taller, they are happy and they have stories to share about their summer at camp. This is the experience that he wants for his child as well, and there are many questions to be asked about the different options available that will meet the family’s desires. What makes this conversation unique is that this parent has a child with a disability. That changes the nature of the conversation.
As the conversation progresses, the family expresses their desires (level of Judaism, types of activities, lake vs. pool, proximity to home) and the child also expresses their desires (activities that they like, food served at camp), but there are many more questions that are not expressed by the child. Unlike the girl I mentioned above, this child is not able to articulate her needs in the same way. For this family there is an awareness that they will need to make some compromises in order to find a place that will be the best place for their child. The non-negotiables: counselors who will know how to work with their child’s particular disability, their child will have fun, and their child will make a friend. While these desires are no different from the desires of other parents they may not make the top three on the list on non-negotiables.
Yes, finding the right summer home for a Jewish child to spend the summer is not an easy feat. For families of campers with disabilities the search may be a bit more extensive. Where to start? The Foundation for Jewish camp has a Find a Camp feature which enables users to search for camps throughout the country. You can also speak to your synagogue rabbi or other parents in your community to learn about the camps their children attend. The number of camps offering programs for children with disability continues to increase. Parents now have options across every Jewish denomination and movement, including non-denominational camps. Options also include general or specialty camps that exist in many parts of the country.
There are Jewish camps that offer programs for children with disabilities including, but not limited to: Deafness, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental disabilities as well as physical disabilities. I want to share a few examples of such programs. The Foundation for Jewish Camp welcomed Aryeh Adventures, its newest summer program for teens with disabilities in 2014. It is a teen travel program where participants travel across the West Coast. In the summer of 2014, Camp L’man Achai opened a program for Deaf boys and has plans for an even larger group this summer. Round Lake Camp of NJY Camps offers specialty camps with a variety of options including fine arts, sports and the sciences. Camp Moshava Malibu opened its doors in the summer of 2014 and already experienced much success with its inclusion program. Camp Yavneh in partnership with Yachad will open an inclusion program in the summer of 2015 and Camp Ramah Darom which runs a family camp, Camp Yofi, at the end of each summer, will now offer summer sessions for children with disabilities. Camp HASC is another such program which is focused on serving the social, therapeutic, academic, recreational, and medical needs of campers with intellectual and physical disabilities.
As you prepare for summer camp, I encourage you to meet with a senior member of the camp staff so that you can get a better sense of whether a particular camp would be a good fit for your child. You should also feel comfortable sharing as much information as possible about your child with the staff at your camp so they can begin to prepare for a successful summer for your child. Feel free to share things that make your child happy, their interests, their fears, their favorite bedtime rituals, their triggers and strategies that work well for you at home or for the teachers at home. Let the staff know how they can support your child and what tools they can use to help to make for a meaningful and fun summer at Jewish camp.
The number and variety of options will continue to expand as the Foundation for Jewish Camp continues to work towards our goal of meeting the needs of a diverse community and ensuring that every Jewish child experiences the joy of Jewish camp.
A colleague recently voiced frustration that “mitzvah” has been mis-translated as “good deed” instead of “commandment.” I agreed, griping in tandem. And then…this happened: In the Davis Academy Middle School Sukkah, we fulfilled a series of commandments, and it felt like such a good deed! What a joy for the students who signed up to host and entertain participants in a Jewish Family & Career Services program for adults with developmental disabilities.
We started out by having our Jewish Life Leadership students understand what the program would entail for them and for their classmates. Then, they agreed to advertise it in one of our all-school Tefillah programs. Sign up sheets went up and kids from 6th, 7th, and 8th grade signed their names, checking with multiple teachers to make sure that they could miss classes during the time of the activity.
They prepared themselves by asking questions and gathering at 15 minutes early on the day our guests were slated to arrive. They asked such important, thoughtful, kind questions:
“What kind of disabilities will they have?”
“What if they’re gluten-free?”
“Can I eat my lunch while they’re eating?”
I asked the students if they could name all of the mitzvot – commandments – that they were doing. The most interesting question that came up was about bikur cholim, visiting the sick. A student asked if we were visiting the sick, because our guests have disabilities. In our open group discussion, we found that while our guests may have certain limitations, they’re not actually sick and in need of healing. Thus, we settled on building community, kehillah, one of our school’s core values, in addition to the mitzvot of welcoming guests and welcoming guests into their sukkah.
When our guests arrived, students were eager to welcome them, peeking out of the front door of the school, bopping around with smiles on their faces, and leaping to introduce themselves to their new friends. Students offered to fill out their new friends’ guest name tags, and went in pairs downstairs to lunch. It was a little too soggy out at the sukkah, due to pretty gloomy weather, so we ate lunch in our cafeteria alongside our entire 6th grade. Escorted through our lunch line (on pizza day!), our guests filled their plates with food and filled their tables with conversation. Some residents were less verbal and some were more loquacious, but every Davis Academy student asked and answered questions, telling stories and learning about their new friends.
After lunch, and clearing off the tables, our students, joined by an 8th grade Hebrew class, escorted our guests outside to our sukkah. Luckily, the skies were clearing, and as a group, we were able to stand in the sukkah, learn a bit about its construction, and learn and follow along with the blessings for shaking the etrog and lulav. Many, if not all, of our guests were not Jewish, and had never been exposed to this holiday, and many were tickled by the exposed sky through the sukkah’s schach, in this case, a bamboo roof.
At the end of the program, students and guests hugged and smiled, posed for pictures, and bid each other farewell. Guests chattered happily with their staff members as they left for the next part of their day, and our students went back to class with their hearts full and eyes gleaming with happiness. They all felt so good for what they had been able to do, and that through these commandments, they had done a good deed.
Summer is over and the excitement of my son Jonah’s longest ever stay at sleep-away camp, three weeks, is starting to feel like a distant memory, an anomaly even. In other words, fall is here and things are returning to what feels, for better or worse, like normal for a family with a child with autism.
If summer seemed full of promise, fall feels more precarious. School has started. There are buses to be met, lunches to be prepared. And the leaves are changing. The fickleness of the weather—balmy one day, freezing the next—is not something I ever paid much attention to as a lifelong Montrealer. But most kids on the autism spectrum don’t like change and Jonah’s no exception. That includes changes in the temperature. Some mornings, he and I end up in drawn-out, complicated debates about the appropriateness, say, of wearing shorts and sandals on a chilly October morning.
This time of year, the Jewish High Holidays, also add to the feeling that we’re back on the same old autumnal schedule. My family remains actively involved with our Reform Temple, often without me, I confess. For the start of Rosh Hashanah, for instance, Cynthia and Jonah showed up along with the rabbi and other members of the congregation at a pond in a neighborhood park to participate in Tashlich or the ritual of casting away our sins. As Cynthia described it to me later, the ceremony began with some songs and prayers and the usual-suspect list of sins: deception, selfishness, arrogance, that kind of thing.
Everyone had also shown up with bread crumbs—symbols of their transgressions—which they were expected to throw into the pond. Before doing this though, each person went off on his or her own. It was an opportunity to meditate on the past year and the year to come. “I liked that part,” Cynthia told me later. “But Jonah really got into throwing the bread into the water.” Apparently, he had used his meditation time to compile a rather extensive list of kids he’d bugged on the school bus. Cynthia did her best to keep pace, but it wasn’t easy. As Tashlich ended, Jonah, with his own typically dramatic flair, threw one final and substantial fistful of bread crumbs into the pond, exclaiming as he did: “I cast away the sin of being a pest.”
Fall, more than any other season, reminds me that I have to be aware of how our son interacts with the world and how the world responds to him. The world, I’m afraid, does not always respond well. Lately, I’ve noticed more jokes about “short buses” – the kind of school bus that picks up Jonah every day—and the kids who ride them than in recent years. I’ve heard these jokes repeated, in one hurtful form or another, on TV shows, spoken by beloved characters, on podcasts from respected cultural and political commentators, even at a speech at a wedding of close friends we recently attended. I know it is easy, sometimes reflexive, to make fun of people who are different. I just wish it weren’t. I wish that this commonplace, everyday kind of intolerance was one transgression we all worked harder to cast off.
People are mostly nice, Cynthia wanted me to add here, but there are still looks and comments she and I deal with or, more likely, ignore every day when we are out in the world with Jonah. They happen everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Here’s an example of an experience Cynthia and Jonah had the other day at Temple. The story is related in my wife’s words:
“I was looking around at the family service and all the beautiful children, especially a little girl snuggling with a boy and an even littler girl. I thought how nice it was for them to have that cosy time together and to get a good feeling for the service. Then this sweet little girl turned around and told my son, who was singing the prayer (correctly, I might add), to be quiet. Then my son started talking to himself and writing with his finger (a kind of stim he uses to calm himself). The little girl looked at her friends and made the finger sign for ‘crazy’ about my son. I am not sure if he noticed or not.”
Incidentally, Cynthia emailed this story to our rabbi, who included the passage in her recent Rosh Hashanah sermon on tikkun olam. To Cynthia’s story, the rabbi added: “There is so much that needs healing. But our tradition teaches that that is precisely why we are here and why our existence is worthwhile: to be God’s hands in this world.”
Last year, Cynthia started a special needs committee at the Temple. The idea remains a simple one – help make a place already welcoming, by definition, become more so.
“I don’t know how to help these children be more compassionate and be enriched by people who are different,” Cynthia concluded in her email to the rabbi, “but that is the goal.”
Not a bad one for this time or any time of year. Not a bad time, either, to cast off the normal ways of thinking about my son and others like him and get to work on fashioning a new normal.
Shana tova and chag sameach! The Jewish fall calendar is full of celebration and festivities and one of my favorites is Sukkot. During Sukkot, we commemorate the forty years during which the Israelites wandered through the desert and lived in temporary shelters. On this holiday, we are commanded to build a sukkah and to “dwell” there.
Sukkot is an opportunity for us to think about and explore the concept of “home”. My husband and co-director, Gilad, and I have been thinking a lot about “home” in the last few weeks. After seven years of living at the Ranch Camp full-time and having it be our primary residence, we now have officially moved to our own property a little ways away. Moving is truly bitter-sweet. After all, we have considered camp our home for many years, even before we moved there permanently at the beginning of our directorship. I know that many current and past campers out there will know what I mean when I say that camp feels like the truest version of “home”. It is a place that is constant, unwavering, a safe haven; a magical place where you can be the best version of yourself (if you allow it to be so) and where there are always loving arms to embrace you both figuratively and literally. While I look forward to establishing a home in this new house of ours, I am also grateful that camp will remain my “forever home” and my summer seasonal residence.
I encourage you during this holiday season to consider what “home” means to you. What constitutes a home? How do you make a new place feel like your home? What do you really need and what is most important to you when establishing a home? Perhaps in asking yourself these questions, you will come to the conclusion, as I have, that home has very little to do with the walls and things that surround you. Sukkot offers us an opportunity each year to ask these important questions, do some introspection, get back to the basics and re-ground ourselves as we enter into a new Jewish year.
So get outside and enjoy! And here are some suggestions for how to bring a little camp into this already very outdoorsy holiday:
Connecting with Nature
Build a fort using natural materials
Sleep outside under the stars
Have a picnic
Make fall decorations from natural objects
Visit a local orchard and harvest your own fruit
Tikkun Olam Projects
As the seasons change and the weather grows colder, we acknowledge that not everyone in our community is lucky enough to have regular access to shelter and food. Consider making a donation to your local homeless shelter and food bank!
What is wrong with the title of this article?
It’s simple, Instagram is not for children under the age of 13 years-old, but some parents are allowing their children to create social media accounts prior to reaching this legal age requirement.
What message does this send to your child?
Are you children above the rules online?
Just because you believe the child is ready for this social media, you can over-ride the rules?
What is the lesson that will carry into your child’s future?
Rules, guidelines and boundaries are given to us for a reason. Whether we are adults or children, safety should always be a priority.
The Internet isn’t any different; it has rules and regulations for our own good. Sometimes known as code of conduct or terms of service (TOS), these guidelines are implemented to protect their users and age restrictions are put in place for a reason. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was enacted to protect children under the age of 13. COPPA actually makes it illegal for kids to sign-up for Instagram and other social media sites that have age restrictions.
What parents need to keep in mind is this is not about Instagram not liking little kids; it is about what is in the best interest of their children. Maybe parents don’t understand what is truly lingering on these sites — it may not be for little ones’ eyes. Remember, even with the best privacy settings, there can be mishaps in cyberspace.
Monitoring our children online is part of parenting today. Prior generations didn’t have to worry about texting, tweeting, emailing, or other digital habits. We have decisions to make today that our parent’s never had:
• When should we give our child their first computer?
• When should we give our child their first tablet?
• When should we give our child their first cell phone? Smartphone?
• When should we allow our child on social media sites?
In many families the first few questions may come down to economics, which is reasonable, combined with the responsibility of your child.
However the last question is one that has been up for debate with some parents. According to a recent study, four out of ten children give a false age to be able to create accounts on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Some parents may believe their child is ready for Instagram, but the fact remains that Instagram is not ready for them.
Facebook recently announced they are working on a patent to allow kids under 13 to join. In doing this they are working to comply with the section of COPPA’s that prohibits children under 13 from using online services that collect data without explicit “verifiable parental consent”.
Even if Facebook is able to find a way to follow COPPA and allow younger kids online, offline parenting remains your best tool for your child’s online safety. Communication is key to digital decisions for social media choices.
Unfortunately, your child can still go behind your back and create a fake email account and attempt to join any social media site they want to. It’s your job to equip them with knowledge and empower them with tools to know better than to create a fake account or, if they do, enable them to make wise choices when confronted with uncomfortable situations.
It’s not about denying them access to Instagram, it’s about helping them to understand that we are not above the rules, and the rules are put in place for our protection. Instagram is not all about fun and funny photos. As many headlines have outlined over the years, there are disturbing things that can take place on Instagram such as porn, cyberbullying, predators and more.
Give your children other age appropriate, social media options and encourage them to share them with their peers. There are some excellent social networking sites for children under 13 years old. Visit Common Sense Media for Kids for a list to choose from.
When your child comes to you and says “All the other kids are on Instagram, why can’t I sign up for it?” be prepared to have a conversation about COPPA, following the rules of the Internet, and although you may trust your child, you know Instagram is not a place for them.
At the end of the day, it’s about the best interest of your child — and being under-aged on Instagram is not in their best interest.
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As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.
Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.
I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my gay children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):
1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.
2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.
3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.
4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.
5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha—sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.
6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children— not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.
7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi—she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.
8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu—to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.
There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.
In the Talmud, the following story is told: One day Moses descended from heaven and sat down in the eighth row behind Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and listened to the discussions on the Torah. Moses knew the letters and the words but did not understand any of the arguments and or follow what they were saying. Eventually, the disciples asked Rabbi Akiva, “Master, where did you learn this?” and Rabbi Akiva replied, “It is that which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.”
In a sense, that’s how I felt as a member of the faculty at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, which just wrapped a very successful inaugural summer. No, I’m not comparing myself to Moses. I’m saying that like Moses, I knew all of the letters and words but still couldn’t always follow what the kids at Sci-Tech were saying.
Despite having graduated with an electrical diploma from Brooklyn Technical High School, and despite being certified to teach 5th – 9th grade math, Sci-Tech campers’ breadth and knowledge of robotics, video game design, environmental science, and digital media production was astounding. Some things I learned during my time with them included the definition of MMO, M7, SSD, a dangle, and VCI; many of our conversations focused on calculus, derivatives, and linear functions. You know, just ordinary camp conversation!
Amidst the dense but commonplace dialogue, campers were also constantly reminded of the camp’s unique equation: Science + Judaism= fun. The campers, who hailed from 22 states and Canada, were constantly reminded of the four goals of camp:sakranut (curiosity), kesher (connection), taglit (discovery), and kavod (respect), in everything they did. Those goals permeated the entire camp experience, from the morning’s Boker Big Bang (where something was usually set on fire or soaring in the air),to each meal, where campers joyfully sang prayers; at the ever-popular gaga pit, and during menucha (rest time) and breirah (free time).
At Sci-Tech, loners are never lonely, which may be one of the most fascinating and powerful things I witnessed—even beyond the highly detailed explanation I received from Israeli Tech staff on how the Iron Dome defense system works. Sci-Tech campers were always working in partnership or in small groups with other like-minded campers, or with counselors, who acted more like mentors and spoke the same language as the campers. Campers learned to respect others’ opinions and ideas while learning how to compromise. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a camper comment, “I thought I knew so much when I came here, but many of the other campers know so much more.”
For children with an affinity for science and technology, nothing is more ideal than being a quick bus ride away from the MIT corridor. Forget trips to the Boston arcade or the bowling alley. Sci- Tech campers had the opportunity to take field trips to Hermonix, a video game design company in Cambridge; iRobot, a robot factory founded by MIT roboticists; Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant; the WIND Technology testing center; and the MIT Museum.
And what of the culinary spread? Because camp is located on the grounds of The Governor’s Academy, the oldest independent boarding school in the United States, Sci-Tech has access to a state-of-the-art dining hall. One visitor likened it to eating three meals a day in a gourmet restaurant.
Luisa, the camp nurse, had nothing but praise for the facilities and the experience. She told me, “It’s the type of place where, if you didn’t need the money, you would work for free. It’s the kind of place kids with passion will always be welcomed with open arms.” And it’s the type of place where nearly every camper said they were going to urge their parents to let them return next summer.