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Jacob Artson’s Keynote Address: Matan Institute for Education Directors, 2012

Meredith Polsky

Jacob Artson is a young adult who communicates by typing.  He has been a keynote speaker at Jewish community inclusion conferences across the United States and has also published articles about inclusion.  He attends Emerson Academy, where he is completing the coursework for his high school diploma.  Jacob loves going to synagogue, studying about Judaism, and celebrating Shabbat and holidays with family and friends.  

Almost half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.  He spoke about the promise of emancipation for Negroes, and how in the ensuing century, the plight of the Negro had not substantially changed.  This was not the problem of Negroes alone, King urged, because no white man could feel free contributing to the Negro’s oppression through silence and inaction.  King reminded us that America is founded on biblical principles – justice, equality, dignity – but it had failed in its mission to live up to those principles.  Having witnessed so much violence against blacks, King had great reason to be pessimistic.  But as a religious leader he had faith that when shown the truth people would choose right and justice.  King had a dream that one day, even in Alabama, one of the most racist states in the nation, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  He had a dream that his four little children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Those biblical principles that Dr. King spoke of are Judaism’s contribution to the world.  But like America in the 1960’s, the Jewish community has forgotten that all of God’s creatures are made in God’s image.   We have been willing to settle for segregation.

So I have a dream too.  I have a dream that one day, in Jewish organizations throughout the United States, wherever Jews gather for support and connection, autistic Jewish boys and girls will be able to join hands with typically developing Jewish boys and girls as sisters and brothers.   I have a dream that one day I and my friends with autism will be judged not by our strange sensory responses but by the content of our character.  I have a dream that one day I will be able to walk into any Jewish setting and no one will give me icy stares when I slip up and get too excited and noisy.   I have a dream that one day in our day schools, Jewish students with ADD and learning disabilities won’t politely be invited to leave to attend public schools and fed the canard that it is for their own good.

Like Dr. King, I have complete faith that it is within our power to rectify the isolation and pain felt by so many individuals with autism and their families. We have all the tools we need in our tradition and in our hearts.

A perfect example of this is the Pesach Sheni.  In Parashat Be-ha’alotkha, God instructs Moses on the first anniversary of the Exodus about the Passover sacrifice.  God directs that this sacrifice be offered on the fourteenth day of the month in a specific manner.   On the appointed day, however, a group of men approaches Moses with a problem.  They were ritually impure by virtue of having come in contact with a corpse and thus could not offer a sacrifice.   Why, these men inquire of Moses, should they be separated from the community and deprived of making the sacrifice with everyone else?  Moses seeks guidance from God, who instructs Moses that anyone who is unable to offer the sacrifice on the originally scheduled date may offer it one month later, on the fourteenth day of the following month.   This Pesach Sheni, or second Passover, has exactly the same effect as the original sacrifice.

Pesach Sheni is a perfect metaphor for inclusion of people with autism and other special needs in the community. Moses could have responded by strictly enforcing God’s rule and telling the men they were out of luck if they couldn’t comply.  But the measure of Moses’ greatness as a leader is that Moses saw it as his job to ensure that no one was excluded from the community simply because, through no fault of their own, they could not participate in exactly the same way as everyone else.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”   All of you here today are Jewish leaders.   You educators, rabbis, and funders are our modern-day Moseses.  You have taken the reins of leadership by inviting me to participate in today’s session.  Including people with special needs is not rocket science.   First, it takes an attitude that all people are created in God’s image and it is our job to find the part of God hidden in each person.  Then it takes an openness to learning from the people you hope to serve how to create the next Pesach Sheni that will enrich us all.

Two years ago, I attended my twin cousins’ bnei mitzvah.  Those of you who know me know that I pray very enthusiastically, so I was quite noticeable among all the other congregants, who were sitting quietly and decorously.   At the party that night, an educator from my cousins’ Jewish day school told us that after the service, her kids asked why I was allowed to dance and clap during the service.  So, the mom explained that I have autism and downloaded some of my speeches and articles off the Internet and read them with her kids.  Of course I was pleased that they found my words inspiring, but I think the mom actually missed the main point of the question.  I think the kids were asking: why can’t we all dance and clap during the service?  In fact, my aunt said that several of the parents commented that my dancing and enthusiasm were the highlight of the service for them.  So, that day, I got to teach some Torah through my autism.   I got to teach that including people with disabilities can actually make a more vibrant Judaism for everyone.

Let me share with you some experiences I have had with religious school that can set the stage for your discussions over the next two days.  When I was younger, I attended a self-contained Hebrew school program for people with special needs in my hometown of Los Angeles.  It worked very well for some of the kids there, but not for me.  I was always one of the most disabled kids in the room.  I could not do art or speak up in class like the other kids, and no one cared that I was smart.  When the class led the Friday night service at the end of the year, I was assigned to lead the Shma, which was the only prayer I was able to sing.  But no one bothered to coordinate with the cantor, so when I finally made it to the bima after much anxiety and effort, the cantor started the Shma and I did not even get to do my part.  Every week, I felt unsuccessful and like an outsider, and it showed in my bad behavior.  After a few years of trying to work with the staff, my parents finally gave up and let me quit.

Here’s another experience I had recently.  I was participating in the Moses-Aaron Cooperative, a program where nonverbal autistic teens share their Torah. Several of the host synagogue’s teens had been selected to read the speeches written by the autistic kids at the presentation.  Probably they were getting community service credit.   While we were in the gym waiting for the program to get started, some of those kids were shooting hoops.  My mom approached them and asked if I could join in.  They tolerated my shooting one basket and then went to the other side of the court to continue shooting baskets without me.

In contrast, my current experience at religious school has been awesome.  Our synagogue, Ikar, has been extremely inclusive.  After I gave the keynote speech at a conference like this one, Ikar invited me to be a scholar-in-residence one Shabbat and even paid me an honorarium.  It was such a great experience that our family joined the shul.  I attend the teen beit midrash, which meets twice a month to study about social justice issues.  Whenever we break into Hevruta, or study partners, someone always asks to be my hevruta.  And when we are not in class, the kids all say hi to me even though they are not getting community service credit for it.

We’re here today to begin the process of creating a roadmap for more inclusive educational communities.  My advice to you as religious school educators is that we do not want your pity and we do not want to be mitzvah projects.   We just want what everyone else wants — to belong.  We want to connect with other friends like ourselves, but we also want to be part of the larger community.  And we don’t want our wonderful siblings to be excluded on our account.  Remember that we all have our individual differences; one-size-fits-all just won’t work.   Finally, it is OK to start with the low hanging fruit, but please don’t stop there.  In your programs, think of me and make sure that you are including the entire spectrum, not just the high functioning individuals.

The defining story of our people is the Exodus story, and it was to that same story that King alluded in his famous concluding passage “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”  In his book Exodus and Revolution, Professor Michael Walzer writes that the enduring appeal of the Exodus story lies in the following truth:

First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land,

And third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.  There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

In the 16 years since I was diagnosed with autism, the Jewish community has made strides toward inclusion, but we still have a very long path ahead of us.  I hope you will join together and march with me toward the day when all Jews can stand together at Mt. Sinai as one people.  And I know of no one better able to guide you on that journey than our next speaker, my amazing Abba.

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