Much of the Jewish world was outraged — understandably — over the recent story of the charedi mayor of Rehovot, Israel, canceling a long-planned bar and bat mitzvah ceremony for four young people with severe autism, objecting to it being held in a Conservative (Masorti) setting.
While the focus has been on religious politics at play here, the fact that such religious ceremonies for young people with disabilities and special needs have become commonplace in Jewish life should not go unnoticed. Indeed, there has been great attention paid in recent years to the physical, educational and spiritual advancement of those with special needs here and in Israel.
It was not always so.
Judaism has had a mixed record in its views on the disabled. A central tenet of our faith is that we are all God’s children, that each of us is created in the image of God. Nothing could be more compelling than that simple but profound statement.
Moses, the greatest Jew in history, was chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt despite having a stutter. Some sages suggest God appointed Moses as spokesman to underscore that physical perfection is less important than one’s inner character.
The Talmud includes stories of rabbis showing great compassion to those with limitations. But the Talmud also describes a list of disabilities that prohibit a person from being a witness in a legal matter or leading the congregation in services.
It is only in recent years that we have seen, and been a part of, a quiet revolution in the Jewish community in giving attention to the disabled community.
The Jewish Week takes pride in its blog, “The New Normal,” a regular feature on our website under the guidance of Web Director Helen Chernikoff and edited by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, who profiled the winners of the Ruderman Best in Business Awards in this issue.
The story of Unit 9900 in the Israeli Defense Forces is one such moving example of putting specific skills to creative use. This particular intelligence unit specializes in analyzing and mapping aerial and satellite photographs, able to detect small details most of us would miss.
The unit is comprised solely of soldiers on the autism spectrum who received special training at an academic college for three months before joining the army. IDF officials praise the unit for its work and, as a result of its success, are developing additional courses for people with autism. One deals with software quality assurance and the other is for informational management, according to an IDF website.
It is only fitting that the initial program for aerial surveillance is called Ro’im Rachok, Hebrew for looking far beyond the horizons. Sometimes meeting the challenges of those with special needs requires looking past the obvious obstacles to a hoped-for outcome and then working diligently to make it happen.
That has been the approach of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which has led the way in advocating for those with disabilities, giving voice to those who often go unheard, and challenging all of us to be more aware of and sensitive to those who may need our help.
We are proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation on this special section of The Jewish Week and hope that those cited and profiled here for their efforts will be an inspiration to all.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.