Meet Our Bloggers

Rafi Josselson is an autistic freshman at the Leffell School in Westchester County. He enjoys reading, trying different foods and, learning about new things.

Rafi's Blogs

October, 2021

My name is Rafi. I’m 14 and a freshman at the Leffell School in Westchester, New York. As a teenager on the Autistic spectrum, I view and experience the world differently than other people. I spend a lot of time learning about what neurotypical people do – how they act, how they handle situations. I thought it might be interesting to turn that around, to share with you throughout the year what it is like for me as I navigate starting a new school for High School. 

I was really nervous to start Leffell. I had been at my previous school for four years. I felt safe there. I find it challenging to socialize and meet new people. I have made and kept a few good friends over the years but I tend to keep to myself. My social anxiety can become even worse in unpredictable situations. I can also have trouble with crowded places, loud noises, and the heat.  I did as much as I could to prepare myself. I made sure I thought through different situations in advance. I asked a lot of questions and appreciated the support from the school administration and my mom. Still, although I met my teachers before school began, I did not know many other 9th graders and I was unsure what to expect. 

Walking down the hallway to the HSBK (High School Beit Knesset, Assembly Hall) for 9th grade orientation was overwhelming. I saw my grade, all talking to each other. I sat down nervously, contemplating the day ahead. A couple of friends from middle school, Elias and Ephram, came over to ask about my summer. That they did that helped me a lot. I am nervous to start conversations, so it helped me feel confident about the discussions that lay ahead.

 

After some announcements from the administration and some small group icebreakers, we had Tefillah (prayers). As I put on my Tefillin and Tallit (ritual garments), I thought about how this was not always easy for me. Last school year, I struggled with putting on my Tefillin, how it irritated my skin and made me feel uncomfortable. But now after lots of practice, I’m used to it. I’m glad my old school let me take it step by step, to make it feel like it was less a chore and more a goal I wanted to accomplish by the end of the year, which I did. I thought about how I will get used to my new school too, and I made a bold decision. When the Service Leader asked for Gabbais (prayer assistants), I volunteered. This was a big step for me, I had barely known these kids for an hour, yet I was now helping lead the service. I started thinking that my social anxiety might not be as bad as I thought. 

A few other things stuck out from that first day. After a team-building exercise during which I stood around awkwardly because a group activity with strangers is overwhelming, we participated in a chesed activity (volunteering). I was relieved when I had the chance to help the program coordinator with some other tasks. This is much easier for me than making small talk. It had already been a long day when we practiced our fire drill line but I held it together, and then thankfully, the first day was over. Overall, I left feeling that the day had been successful.

The second day was much more challenging than the first because I faced a number of challenges that required me to be flexible. My mother made some mistakes with the bus registration, so when in the afternoon I went to get on the bus I took to school, the driver wouldn’t let me on. This was my first day of busing at a new school, and I did not know who to ask for help, and I was not the only student in this situation. Finally, I found out I was supposed to go in a private SUV. I sat for an hour and a half in a small car, with kids I didn’t know, and I didn’t know when I’d be dropped off. I had a panic attack, which is terrifying for me. Thankfully, a week later and with the bus problem resolved, I get picked up at my own house every morning. 

In terms of classes, I think I will enjoy all of them, especially History and English. I am more concerned with Hebrew and Math because in the past, I have experienced a lot of stress in these two classes. For Hebrew, I have been trying to learn the language for a long time, but it has been a struggle. I hope this year will be different. For Math, I have found it difficult to pick up new concepts, and that gets me stressed out, and when I haven’t stayed on top of my thoughts, I’ve had panic attacks. 

At the end of the first “full” week of school, we had a Shabbaton (overnight school trip). People in my grade had mixed feelings. A lot of people seemed super excited for the weekend, but others, including myself, appeared very worried about the experience. I asked questions in advance, but there was still a lot I didn’t know and I knew I would have to be flexible. 

 

We were split into bunks when we arrived, but I didn’t know the kids in the bunk, and I didn’t feel very comfortable. I started to worry that it would be difficult to connect with them. I had a panic attack, and after what felt like an eternity to me, I was able to explain how I was feeling to an administrator. I was moved to another bunk where I knew some kids and over the weekend, found others who have similar interests as me. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made. The weekend was long and full of services, activities, and meals. But I made some new friends, and I came home from the Shabbaton feeling more confident about socializing and meeting new people.

Change is difficult, I think we all know that. But for many on the Spectrum, new scenarios or situations can be exceptionally difficult. Whether that is a new class, a new social setting, or a new responsibility, change is always challenging for me. But that’s what they are, challenges. I know that if I work hard enough, I can overcome what I am facing. I know there will be bumps in the road – that’s unavoidable — but I have a solid base and the right mindset, so I am not alone. Looking back on my first month of high school, I am relieved that this first hurdle is behind me, but I am also proud. I stayed calmer than I thought I would. For finding new friends and colleagues, for pushing myself to the limit. I have a couple of months ahead until my next edition (December 15th) is published! See you then!

Stephanie Kallish is from the suburbs of Chicago. She went to Highland Park High School and grew up at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. She is now a first-year at Brandeis University and is studying Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. She serves on the International Board of USY, and is involved in Jewish Mental Health Advocacy, Israel Education and general Jewish life. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys reading, biking, Jewish learning, and drinking coffee.

Stephanie's Blogs

November, 2021

Content Warning: Su*cide and  depression 

It is 8:00 on Saturday morning. I carefully button my wool jacket and pull on my skirt over my tights. At 9:00 I walk into the large elegant sanctuary of my shul (synagogue), and I can hear the murmurs of morning prayers. As I sit in my usual row in the back, I am greeted by familiar faces. I am asked about my week at school, and I smile and talk about the usual; classes, friends and USY. But behind my smile, there is a secret, a piece of me that feels so inconsistent with who I am within the walls of my synagogue. Walking into shul on Saturday mornings feels like a breath of fresh air. It is a place where I feel happy, a place where I choose to spend my time because it is truly important to me. But, for the rest of my week, happiness feels like a distant memory. 

During my junior year of high school, I battled a paralyzing episode of depression. Each morning, waking up to get to school was a struggle, socializing was a chore, and I constantly questioned and doubted the meaning and value of my life. The dark cloud of shame haunted me. The jarring words of suicide and hospitalization were hideous gashes in the image of myself I projected, the involved Jewish leader that I was thought to be. As I sat in the familiar red chairs of my shul, I could feel the intense tension between the two conflicting identities I held. I was struggling to love and value my life, while at the same time I was supposed to be a leader in my community, a person that other Jewish teens looked up to. For me it was impossible to imagine the possibility of  other people finding meaning in my leadership, while I could not even find meaning within myself. 

My secret was something that weighed me down and made me question my true role in my Jewish community. I had the perception that everyone in my community was perfect, no one would understand my experiences, and that I was too broken for my high achieving congregation. But I realized that I was a part of this ‘perfect’ community and was one of the high achieving people within. If my mental illness is a secret that I carry, how many people in the sanctuary also have secrets? How many people struggle or have a piece of their identity that seems to conflict with my perception of them? I realize now that the image I projected to my congregation does not have to conflict with my personal struggle. I can be a person who excitedly arrives at shul on a Saturday morning and faces the challenge of mental illness. Mental illness does not have to counter Jewish identity, it can be a part of it. It is not something  unfamiliar to our community, it is just something that is not publicly talked about enough. Our struggles and  successes are all part of the fabric of who we are. It is important to recognize that the pain and failure that we experience is no less part of us than our achievements and triumphs. When synagogue communities talk about mental health publicly,  more people will feel seen, and less will feel burdened by their secrets. More will understand that it is possible to be a role model and imperfect, and that many of these people in our lives are. 

If you are reading this right now and are struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone. We really have no idea what our  neighbor, classmate, or fellow shul goer is going through. While mental illness can be invisible, support and destigmatizing efforts should not be. I hope my story can work to uplift the fact that mental illness is real and prevalent in the Jewish community, and that if we talk about it and start important conversations, more people will feel seen, heard and valued. Our struggles do not conflict with who we are, they are part of who we are. It is okay to not be okay.

Noah Brick is a 15 year old high school sophomore from White Plains, New York. He has Tourette Syndrome and a few other co-occurring conditions such as ADHD, dysgraphia and anxiety. He is a youth ambassador for the Tourette Association of America. In his free time, he enjoys acting, watching “F.R.I.E.N.D.S.“ and playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Noah's Blogs

December, 2021

blog 1- the importance of self-advocacy,

 When you are diagnosed with a disability, you might at first feel embarrassed. Or, you might feel like you have to hide that disability – that is how I felt at first. But, over time, I learned that it isn’t something to be embarrassed about or to hide. Instead, I’ve grown to realize that it is more important to confidently own my disability and educate others. Never is this more important than when it comes to my teachers and educators.

Originally, my parents were the ones to talk to my teachers and explain my Tourette Syndrome and my co-occurring conditions. They would talk for me when I was too scared to talk about my Tourette Syndrome because I did not have the right words or the confidence to speak up. Eventually, they taught me to educate my teachers. I wanted to have my own voice in talking about my Tourette Syndrome because it helped me gain confidence as I explained it. 

When I was in 7th grade, I was having an extreme vocal tic; my music teacher said to the class that whoever was making the noises needed to stop. Can you imagine how mortifying that was? I went up to her after class and explained that I have Tourette Syndrome, which means that I have involuntary motor and vocal tics that I cannot control or stop. This was the first time that I had advocated for myself about my Tourette Syndrome, and it felt great. 

Unfortunately, the conversation doesn’t always go as well as that one did, and sometimes I need to explain my Tourette Syndrome more than once to the same person. I have had teachers make crude “jokes” that make fun of my disability. A few years ago, my language teacher told me that I should use my Tourette to curse out the principal about something with which she herself was frustrated. She told me that if I do it, I won’t get in trouble because I can blame it on TS. This was extremely offensive, and I explained to her how Tourette is not an excuse to do actions that you would not do normally. After this incident, I realized that I needed to talk to all of my teachers at the beginning of the year about my Tourette. I understood, then, that I can’t assume that others know about my disability, even teachers. There is no one better than I to explain it to them and help them understand.

Here is my advice for when you are advocating for yourself at the beginning of the school year. It is important to set up meetings with your teachers to introduce yourself and talk about the upcoming year. These meetings will allow you to have a few moments with your educators to let them know of any conditions, questions, disabilities, or struggles that they should be aware of. As soon as I get my schedule, I send a friendly email to my teachers asking if we can set up time to prepare for the year. In this email, I tell my teachers that I have Tourette Syndrome, and what that means for my life academically. 

After that initial meeting, you can’t stop advocating for yourself, and you can’t rely on your teachers to remember everything from the conversation. Throughout the year, continually ask to speak privately if you need anything and remember to raise your hand to ask questions in class. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because it is likely that someone else has the same question and was too afraid to ask it. Another way to advocate for yourself is to ask the teacher for more time or explanations on assignments. 

It is important to note that If your disability significantly impacts your life, then there is a good chance you might qualify for a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). These plans could include accommodations that give you equal access to the academic environment. For example, can you imagine what it is like for me to tic while doing an English or Math test? Clearly, it interferes with my ability to read, analyze and calculate. Thank goodness I have extra time to account for this. Don’t understand how to complete some homework? Ask your teacher to explain. Knowing how to ask for help in and of itself is a really important skill to learn and hone. In my experience, asking for help helps me relax and feel less stressed about not knowing what to do. When I feel stressed, my mind thinks about not only the topic I’m  stressed about, but everything that is bothering me. This makes the stress worse, so practicing self-advocacy saves me time and calms my mind. It might be the same for you!

Advocating for yourself can be intimidating. You are really putting yourself out there!  But, it is an essential skill that will not only help you as you traverse through school, but will also help you as you grow and mature into a self-respecting and self-sufficient adult. These little bits of advice and ways to advocate were given to me by my parents and they really helped me build up confidence. I hope they are helpful to you, too, and allow you to become more confident in yourself.