Written by Irene Bolton, Education Director, Temple Beth Or, Township of Washington, NJ Cohort 1 Participant, Matan Institute for Congregational School Education Directors
Something special happened in our school. I had been thinking a lot about finding a way to tie this year’s school theme of Sensitivity to Disability to Pesach in some exciting and creative manner. I was reminded that Cantor Hayut had met a woman from FL at the URJ Biennial (which we attended in December) who had offered to have her son speak here at TBO. Her son was a young man of 14 named Sam. He was speaking at the Biennial before almost 1,000 people about what it is like to be living with Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder) . Talk about Jewish geography—the woman at Biennial outside of Washington DC, lived in FL, and was the sister of one of our congregants! In just a few phone calls the visit was arranged. And even more impressive was that the date we set for the program was the day before World Autism Awareness Day.
So, you might be thinking, how will there be a connection to Pesach? After talking to Sam’s mother, the program became clear in my mind. Passover is a time to realize how important stories really are to us as a people and to each of us individually. Haggadah literally means “telling”. Mitzrayim is the Hebrew word for Egypt. Mitzrayim translates as “narrow place”.
Sam would tell his story about moving from a narrow place to a place to where he could experience the freedom to be more “typical” as he calls it. He could share about the narrow places he had experienced in his own life and tell of the freedom he found by overcoming his fears and believing in himself. Isn’t that the message we want our students to learn not only about Pesach, but also about life?
As part of the introduction to Sam’s presentation, I asked students to recall the many programs we had this year to help us increase our sensitivity to those with disabilities and reminded our students that we must see everyone as created in the image of God. We discussed the themes of identity, exodus and freedom as it relates to Pesach, and I asked the students to listen to see if they could find a connection between Sam’s story and the story of the holiday we were soon to celebrate.
After Sam spoke, our Cantor wrote a note to Sam’s mom who was ill and could not be present for the program. “Sam really moved, touched, inspired and taught us. He is a real treasure who teaches from his heart, and what he teaches is nothing short of incredible. Our junior choir kids thought that Sam was the coolest person they ever met.”
After a short question and answer period, the students were divided into groups to continue the program and to participate in special activities. I would like to tell you about our 5th and 6th grade combined session. I asked these students if they were too old for a good story. They were eager to hear the one I was about to read — Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Bodin Cohen (a new book published by Kar-Ben) – the theme of which is that freedom is facing your fears and overcoming them. Midrash teaches that Nachshon was the first to enter the water as the sea parted so that the Israelites could cross to freedom. Who said older students are too old for picture books – as long as you make the conversation appropriate!
Sam sat with us and participated in the discussion as we compared and contrasted events in the story to his own life. Students were able to relate Pharoah’s actions to the bullying that Sam described and the Exodus from Egypt to the personal journey that Sam had so wonderfully articulated. They continued to ask many questions. What should the four questions of this program be, I asked several students?
The students were then instructed to get paper and art supplies to illustrate Passover’s theme of freedom, a part of Sam’s story that resonated with them personally, a personal fear they would like to overcome and/or fears the Israelite slaves may have had as they left Egypt. I was surprised to see that so many of our students chose to represent their own fears with beautiful illustrations and words. Many actually wrote, “Freedom is overcoming your fears.”
The morning was an amazing one for all of us! We were blessed to have been able to have Sam offer us the wisdom of his experiences at this special time of year. Everyone should have the good fortune to learn and grow from Sam’s incredible courage and strength, insights and abilities.
In telling his story and advocating for Autism acceptance, Sam reminded us that we all have the opportunity to think about freedom in a new light. May we all work to help the world understand that differences should be celebrated. Together we can make the world a better place – a place of peace and freedom.