February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (also known in Los Angeles as Jewish Inclusion Awareness or IAM). There are hundreds of activities throughout the country to help bring understanding and inclusion of those who are "differently abled." For several weeks, I have been actively planning events, in many cities, including participating in Vista Del Mar's Inclusive Shabbat Service, leading an international Webinar based on my book, "Now I See the Moon," screening the film, "AUTISM: The Musical," which features my program The Miracle Project, in synagogues throughout the U.S. and speaking about Inclusion with Clergy. But it was an unexpected call from my friend and mentor Rabbi Naomi Levy that made Inclusion most meaningful and personal and led me to experience one of the most wonderful evenings of my life.
In honor of Inclusion Awareness, Rabbi Naomi invited my 18-year-old son, Neal, who is nonverbal and has autism, to share the words that he had typed about the Hebrew prayer the Shema ("To Listen") with her congregation Nashuva for their Shabbat service. That Neal would be able to even attend a religious service with me was a miracle in itself. That he would be able to stand in front of a congregation of more than 300 people as his words were read is a dream I never even dared to dream.
I had always longed to share and connect with Neal in my religious observance. When I was a little girl, I used to sit beside my Dad at Shaare Tikvah, our small synagogue in Camp Springs, Md. As my Dad prayed, I would play with his tzitzit -- the fringes on his prayer shawl. I loved sitting next to him, hearing him sing, smelling his Old Spice cologne. These were times of intense closeness. While my Dad was praying in Hebrew, I read the prayer book. I learned and I connected with G-d.
Years later, with a child of my own, I dreamt that I could sit with Neal like this in prayer. However, like many things when you have a child with severe autism, this did not seem likely to happen.
Still, I used to imagine -- Neal and I walking into a crowded Friday night service at my temple. Me, smiling; Neal, peaceful. I fantasize that we are greeted by the rabbi and other congregants. I pretend that Neal sits beside me, engaged through the entire service. Then my reality would hit me and I would recall a time when Neal was 6-years-old and we tried to go to temple: the sounds, sights, totally overwhelming Neal and turning him into a screeching, whirling mess. Me, apologetically carrying a flailing Neal out of the sanctuary; Neal, exhausted, shaking his head, saying "no, no, no!" I had decided long ago to toss this dream aside, along with being in a feature film, having a happy marriage and doing something useful with the United Nations.
Twelve years later and my fantasy becomes real. That little boy is now a young man -- a leader in his community, a voice for the voiceless. As I had envisioned 12 years ago, Neal sits with me and my beautiful loving husband, Jeff, throughout the entire service as Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva band envelopes us with music, wisdom and blessing. Neal greets people in the congregation with openness and joy -- using sign language to say that he is "happy." When it is time for Neal's speech to be read, he confidently walks on the bimah by himself, acknowledging everyone with pride as a lovely teen, Renata, powerfully reads his words. When he comes down from the bimah, we dance the Shabbat prayers. To say that this is a dream come true is an understatement.
Fortunately, this was documented by the Jewish Journal -- a "pinch me, I'm awake" proof that it happened.
Parents who have children with severe autism rarely have moments like this to kvell. I cannot even find all the words to describe the triumph of this magnificent evening. All the awards, accolades and acknowledgements that we have been privileged to receive, do not equal these moments of pure bliss. I know that G-d is working in our lives in ways that are unimaginable and that the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Inclusion elevates all.
Shabbat Shalom, blessings and tremendous gratitude to all the people that led us to this miraculous evening and for bringing us to this day. Thank you to Vista Del Mar, Rabbi Jackie Redner, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Nashuva and the Jewish Journal, and synagogues across the country for celebrating inclusion.
Blessings to All,