In my role as a Jewish educator, I take many students on weekend retreats. Such experiences are a wonderful opportunity for teens to live and learn together as we celebrate Shabbat, socialize, talk and play. At retreats, teens build relationships and their Jewish identities, and such experiences expand exponentially on what we accomplish within the walls of our synagogue. Living together in Jewish time and sharing the joy of Shabbat in a unique setting is an amazing springboard from which we can launch our kids into so many other significant opportunities.
Our commitment to including kids with disabilities doesn’t waver when we leave the temple, but these students can have unique needs, especially during an overnight stay. To help one of our students navigate the social dynamics and abstract learning of this year’s retreat, we brought another high school student from our congregation as his “shadow.” I was confident that this would be a successful model, but little did I realize the gift I was giving to both of these young men.
Here are thoughts shared by our teen shadow, Max Levinston, a high school junior:
“The [Temple Beth-El] 8th and 9th grade two-night retreat was a great experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was really honored to have the opportunity serve as Wayne’s shadow. Before the retreat I was excited; however, once I walked through the vestibule and it got real, I was a little bit anxious. Wayne and I met up and went to our room and talked for a while before Shabbat, and I was excited again; because the thought I’d had earlier was ridiculous.
It was really great to see Wayne socializing and making new friends from other temples. When programming started, I was a little worried about how I was going to explain some of the abstract things to him if he had a hard time understanding.
However, he did a great job of communicating when he had trouble understanding something. One thing that really stood out to me was the time capsule that a group of kids created. Wayne decided to write a letter to himself so he could read it in the future. I helped him format the letter, but he came up with its content, and it was really interesting and rewarding to see what he thought of the weekend and have him express his thoughts by writing a letter to himself.
We had fun together. We had interesting conversations about movies, actors and countries while we were in our room or walking around the hotel for a quick break. He never failed to surprise me with some of the things he would bring to our conversations and I really enjoyed spending time with him. He taught me a lot and I hope that I did the same for him.”
Here are Wayne’s thoughts from his time capsule letter:
“Dear Wayne, the trip was fun. We stayed at the Doubletree Hotel. The hotel was nice. We learned about community. I think it is great to be nice to everyone. I was listening to Big Joe Henry [with Max] on New Jersey 101.5. Sincerely, Wayne”
We are taught, “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” (Shavuot 39a)
I am so proud of these young men. They looked out for each other in ways I never would have expected. Each of them has a beautiful neshama (Jewish soul). I just happen to have the good fortune to help nurture them.
There are such obvious benefits of including people with disabilities in the Jewish community. With commitment, anything is possible.
Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She oversees an extensive special needs program within the religious school, with programs designed to help students learn about their Jewish heritage, feel connected to their Jewish community and successfully learn Hebrew. Additionally, Lisa facilitates conversations about inclusion throughout the synagogue as whole and helps the congregation to shape its best practices. Lisa writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education: http://jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com/