I spent a dozen years practicing the endangered, seemingly antiquated craft of print journalism. Even if you’ve never set foot in a newsroom or interacted with a reporter, you know some of the guiding principles: Maintain a critical distance. Strive for objectivity and fairness. Avoid becoming part of the story.
Here’s a truth from the trenches: a lot of the time objectivity isn’t difficult to obtain. That’s because I, and many reporters in their 20s, are often assigned to cover stories that primarily interest people closer to my parents’ age. I’m talking zoning and school board meetings; stories that impacted property values and taxes. These aren’t the topics that stir an idealistic (and naïve) truth crusader. Later, as a married but still childless writer for a Jewish newspaper—who didn’t have a synagogue membership—I wrote my fair share of articles about the challenge of making synagogue supplemental schools fun and compelling. And, I even wrote a few pieces about the efforts of congregational schools—and the Jewish world more broadly—to fully include people with varying degrees of disabilities.
I knew, intellectually, these were important issues, that they concerned the future of Jewish life in a profound way. Yet, living on the other side of the great parenthood divide, they felt so far from me and my thirst to pursue what I imagined to be the real big questions.
Funny how life’s trajectory plays out. Fast-forward a decade or so and I’m the middle-aged home owner with the big lawn and two-car garage wondering how this or that township building project will affect what I owe the government. I’m the one who can hardly recall what life was like before parenthood, who has trouble getting through a social interaction without mentioning my kids or whipping out my phone to show off my latest photo or video. And, my wife, Amy, and I are the parents of a wondrous, inquisitive, outgoing, sometimes maddening second-grader with ADHD. Helping her succeed, thrive, feels like a never-ending puzzle. Every time we feel we’re close to solving it, new pieces suddenly appear, jagged and pointy, refusing to coalesce with the rest of the picture.
Religious school has, to say the least, proved to be challenging for our daughter and us. As our focus has been on navigating public school and health concern, my daughter has become increasingly unhappy Sunday mornings as she gets ready for religious school. Amy and I find ourselves asking: Is this the same antipathy to Hebrew school that nearly every kid has felt at some point, or something deeper, something that can be addressed?
I’m now part of the story of Jewish parenthood that once felt so distant. I’m no longer a full-time journalist (I’m a full-time Jewish community professional these days.) Yet, in navigating these challenges, I still think of myself as a journalist pursuing a story. Perhaps that’s because I need a familiar framework in such unfamiliar terrain. Maybe its because, for most of my adult life, I’ve viewed the question of what does it mean to be Jewish as one mega story.
I applaud the efforts of actual journalists and news organizations to call attention to special needs challenges, both inside the Jewish community and beyond. These stories have done much to change perceptions and initiate change. We need more of it.
It’s not a perfect metaphor. Yet I believe that if parents and other advocates begin to approach these challenges with a journalistic mindset, it might be helpful to all who are endlessly trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle that may never be completed.
Whether you’re talking about ADHD, autism, anxiety, or a range of other challenges, there’s so much information to unpack, so much jargon to translate into accessible language. So much to read. So many people to talk to. So much to learn. It can feel overwhelming and often is. Yet the journalistic mindset can empower parents to tackle all the information systematically (like, say, the Boston Globe’s investigation team in Spotlight.) This approach can also reinforce the reality that parents aren’t only learning for their families, but to contribute to their local and global communities.
I know what you’re thinking. In Spotlight journalist expose serious, morally reprehensible wrongdoing. Also, that our religious school directors and teachers do what they do because they care about children and the Jewish community. They work, often on their time off from primary careers, with little compensation. Parents shouldn’t be adversarial. They should celebrate religious school teachers and partner with them in the task of actually making religious school fun and compelling for kids.
I agree completely. And yet, in a way that is not adversarial and collaborative in nature, parents of special needs kids must hold educators accountable. Good intentions go a long way but are not enough. Each special needs child needs specifics. A plan. A strategy. A team that can execute and reassess when things inevitably go awry. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that parents can’t sit back and let the educators handle it. We have to be proactive. The stakes are too high.
My sense is that our Jewish institutions have made tremendous strides in working with those with the most visible disabilities. What about those disabilities, including ADHD, but also anxiety and other mental health challenges, which may harder to discern or invisible? Our Jewish communities, our society, has a long way to go in this regard.
One of the things that quality journalism does so well is raise awareness of invisible stories, be a voice for the voiceless. Those who care about special needs kids must continue to reach across the divide of experience and make it real for those who don’t live with these challenges. A journalist makes connections, and those connected to others feel less alone. The more people who really get it, the broader the support will be, the more educators will have the resources they need. And those who feel less alone, who’ve made connections with others in similar circumstances, have access to the most important resource: hope.
We’ve got to share our stories in-person, on-line and yes, through blogs and other written vehicles. We’ve got to continue talking to one another and those within and outside of our communities. We’ve got collectively hold our institutions accountable. Is that journalism? Advocacy? Simply modern parenthood?
So, fair warning, I’m going to ask a lot of questions. And I’ll likely share some of what I learn in this space and other venues. It’s the only way I know how to go about my most important job.
Bryan Schwartzman is an award-winning writer who lives in suburban Philadelphia and works for Reconstructing Judaism. He and his wife, Amy, are the parents of two daughters.
More from The New Normal here.