“My name is Jacob Wiener. I am from Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. I am almost 15 years old. I have PDD-NOS and bipolar syndrome. The American Disabilities Act allows me to go to school…”
This is the beginning of my son Jacob’s speech when he joined with a group of other Reform Jewish teens to lobby Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff on the importance of supporting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He was one of 2,000 high school-aged people attending the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center’s annual L’Taken Seminar in Washington, D.C.
For 50 years, the RAC has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C., educating and mobilizing the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. But I never realized how personal political action can be.
I can still remember when Jacob texted me in October. The text read, “got the flyer. I am going to Washington.” I was caught off-guard. How can I talk him out of this? I was afraid for him to go on what would otherwise be a typical trip for a high school student. I even tried to get one of his counselors from summer camp to accompany Jacob, but in the end that did not work out. So, there I was on a Friday afternoon boarding a bus to D.C. with 34 teenagers, ninth and 10th graders. My anxiety was on high alert.
Jacob is truly what I would call a “child of the congregation,” having grown up at Westchester Reform Temple. Despite his challenges, we have always been able to partner with the clergy and professionals to make religious school a positive experience. Jacob is my “want to be” child. He only wants to be like everyone else, to be accepted and to be included. Jacob will often comment, “I love being Jewish.”
We arrived at the hotel after a six-hour bus ride. The kids were immediately joined by groups from other synagogues and the L’Taken seminar, for us, was officially on its way. I shadowed Jacob during that first hour, trying to keep my distance to minimize his mortification at his mother trailing him. I was proud when he turned to the teenager next to him and introduced himself as “Jacob from Westchester Reform Temple.”
One thing you must know is that Jacob loves to be with people; he is not shy nor does he have any filters. Over the course of the next three days he introduced himself to the teens in his workshops or to those he ate with as soon as he sat down. At one point over the weekend he said to me, “I am with Jewish teens from all over just like me.” At that moment, I knew, he got it; but more important, he felt at home.
As a parent we look for that sameness, that perfectness we hope each of our kids will achieve. Was I to limit what Jacob could do because he was different? Or did Jacob’s differences have something to teach me and those around him? There were many times that being limiting would have been the easier thing for me to do. I can argue that having Jacob has taught me that every child has a gift, every child has something to offer. He has taught me to slow down, and to and appreciate him for who he is. He has taught me that it is OK to sing loudly and yes, even off-key at services, as he does with joy. Jacob has taken me on a journey. This journey introduced me to people whom otherwise I would most likely never have met. He is why I was able to experience the power of transformation and learning our youth get to experience when they attend the L’Taken seminar.
Throughout the weekend the teens were given the knowledge and the tools they needed to write an effective, passionate and persuasive speech, on a topic of their choice, to present when they visited the offices of our senators and representatives on that coming Monday. It was at one of these offices that Jacob was able to tell his story and to share his unique gifts.
I came home from the weekend with new knowledge about my son and a heightened awareness of the accepting behavior of teens. My fearless son had shown me the way. While I was trailing behind him throughout the weekend, he was, in fact, leading me to see the world through his courageous lens. He was joined on this journey by the teachers and teens of a movement that takes to heart the idea that we are all created in God’s image.
Susan Wiener is chair of the Inclusion Task Force, Westchester Reform Temple Scarsdale, N.Y.