Susan Nussbaum, a playwright and novelist confined to a wheelchair for decades, says she doesn’t really think about her disability. Her faith, she told a standing-room-only audience of some 300 people at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side Monday night, comes from resilience and from “people capable of tremendous love and flexibility and creativity — for me that’s enough.”
Eustacia Cutler, the mother of animal behaviorist, author and autism activist Temple Grandin, said “the more we reach out to each other, more than anything else,” that’s what provides comfort and hope. She cited Psalm 42 (“Why, my soul, are you downcast? … Put your hope in God…”) as a source of strength.
And Nancy Crown, a clinical psychologist and mother of a 28-year-old daughter on the autism spectrum, said that when she felt the “isolating pain” of dealing with her child’s challenges, she “reached out to Rodeph Sholom,” noting that it was her way into spirituality. That led her to co-found and co-chair the congregation’s Shireinu worship service for people with special needs.
The three women who offered their frank feelings and observations in conversation with moderator Sandee Brawarsky, culture editor of The Jewish Week, were the featured panelists at a program entitled “Understanding Difference: A Frank Conversation About Disability and Inclusion,” sponsored by The Jewish Week in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation. It was co-sponsored by Rodeph Sholom and supported by UJA-Federation of New York.
Jay Ruderman, president of his family foundation, based in the U.S. and Israel, noted at the outset that its work in integrating the disabled into American Jewish life and Israeli society is based on the concepts of continuity and social conscience, and the belief that inclusion is fair, essential and strengthens us all.
Robert Levine, senior rabbi of Rodeph Sholom, spoke of the need to reach out to “the hidden Jews” who for too long have been neglected by the Jewish community. And Roberta Leiner, a vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, described the many efforts of the charity to address those needs.
But the evening belonged to the three panelists and expressed, in turn, the frustration, loneliness and anger of dealing with disabilities — their own (in Nussbaum’s case) or their daughters’ (all three). And with it all, the maternal love that, as Crown said, “reshaped me and made me wiser and stronger.”