What does it mean to be equal? Is there a difference between being tolerant and being accepting? How can I, a simple Jewish boy from the suburbs make that difference and change someone's life so that they feel equal? These are all questions I pondered as I traveled to Boston for BBYO's Panim Institute's One For All: A Jewish Teen Summit On Equality.
I came prepared, I had my questions in mind, I knew what I wanted to learn, and I was ready to take action. Unfortunately for me, that all went out the window when the first program started and I realized that what I thought I knew and everything I saw as normal and second nature, was an issue for others.
I realized I had been too busy contemplating the "hows" when I hadn't yet mastered the "whats" and "whys." How could I possibly expect to be able to make someone who was considered "not normal" or who has a mental or physical handicap feel included when I didn't even know what their handicap meant to them? I had to wipe my slate clean and open myself up to the institution... and I couldn't have been more excited.
First I had to be re-educated the right way. I had to get rid of the ideas of the societal norm that had reinforced through the years and start over with a completely objective mindset. Unfortunately for me, this was easier said than done as previous conceptions got in the way of my ability to completely comprehend the situation these individuals face each and every day.
Speakers with disabilities as well as members of the LGBTQ community told their stories of their triumphs and the demoralizing situations they have gone through. Finally it clicked. It isn't up to me to understand. It isn't up to me to try to feel what they feel, see what they see, or even pretend that I can. My job is to recognize the problem and become educated. I have to represent the voice of these individuals by standing as their ally and advocating for them. Education complete.
But, of course, I wasn't done, I couldn't be. Purely knowing that a problem existed never has, never will, and never could solve that problem. I needed inspiration. I needed a reason to go out and fix this issue. I had the "whats" but I needed the "whys." This part eluded me for what seemed like an eternity. At one point I thought I was chasing after something that just didn't exist. The programs at One For All had been phenomenal, the speakers empowering, and the message was portrayed without a flaw. But despite these incredible aspects, they didn't give me that feeling. I wasn't yet convinced that I could make the difference. And then it happened.
It wasn't with a program, it wasn't with a speaker, in fact it wasn't even scheduled. I was just an innocent bystander, but what I saw changed the way I saw the world. I was with my fellow participants on the streets of Boston when a homeless woman, one of the people we were striving to understand, stopped us on the street. She pointed out that my friend had dropped something 30 feet down the road. My friend ran back and grabbed it and we moved on. By simply telling my friend that she had dropped an article of clothing halfway down the road, I realized that we can learn, grow, and benefit from each other, no matter what our situation. That's when I truly realized why I need to make a difference. That simple interjection was everything.