One Saturday morning a few years ago, I was sitting in synagogue when another congregant approached my wife and me from across the room.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but are you aware of what your son is doing out in the lobby?”
We have three sons, but we both knew which one she meant. Ezra was then 18, a delightful, enthusiastic and sometimes unpredictable bundle of energy. My wife and I exchanged knowing looks — What now? — and the woman gestured for us to follow her.
As we made our way toward the door, a few memories flashed through my mind.
I thought of the parent-teacher conference years earlier in the synagogue’s preschool. Sitting on a toddler-size chair, I had listened as the teacher described how “spacey” Ezra was, how he didn’t sing along with the other kids, how, while other children played together, he preferred to sit on his own, idly flipping through picture books.
Not long after that, he was diagnosed with autism.
I remembered how Ezra as a young child struggled to cope with the commotion of the synagogue’s social hall during the Kiddush after services. Sensitive to the noise generated by a roomful of schmoozing congregants, he would dash into the room, weaving through the crowd with his hands cupped over his ears, grab a handful of rainbow-sprinkle cookies, then pivot and sprint back to the lobby to enjoy his treats in quiet.
And I called to mind the countless Shabbat mornings when Ezra would walk to shul hauling his red backpack, always crammed full of books. As the daveners around him made their way through the Amida and the Torah service, he would sit beside me, flipping through volumes on his two favorite topics: Disney movies and animals.
Surrounded by the lively bustle of a Shabbat morning, my son sometimes seemed to occupy his own universe, barely acknowledging the people immediately around him, let alone the service proceeding on the bima.
Over time, he began choosing to wander instead of sit, and the synagogue building became a unique space in his life, its hallways safe zones where Ezra could roam freely, striking up conversations with all kinds of people: young, old, familiar, just passing through. For those two hours, we didn’t worry about him, but we also never knew what he might be up to.
Until that one morning when we were summoned to the lobby. My wife and I put down our prayer books and walked together out the chapel doors and down the hall into the lobby. There we spotted Ezra. He was sitting on the floor, doing what he always did: flipping through a book about Disney movies.
Only this time, he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by a group of children: four- and five-year-olds. And he was reading to them from one of his books. And showing them the pictures. The kids were peppering him with questions about the book, and he was answering and then asking them questions. He was animated and happy and engaged—and the children were completely enthralled.
My wife and I stood across the lobby, hoping Ezra wouldn’t see us, and watched our son, full of joy and enthusiasm and surrounded by children.
The next Shabbat, he brought his load of books, as usual, and at some point, he again slipped out of services. I discovered him later in that same spot, with even more kids around him than before.
In time, that became his weekly routine. Ezra had discovered a niche, a place where he could channel his gifts, his enthusiasms, his boundless joy.
After a couple of months, we made an appointment with the director of the synagogue’s early childhood center. We didn’t have to tell her about what Ezra had been up to. She had already heard.
“Would it be possible for him to come and read to the kids in the school?” I asked.
“I don’t see why not,” she said, smiling.
I couldn’t help but flash back to that conference a decade-and-a-half earlier, the one at which the teacher had told us our son wasn’t like his peers.
He still isn’t. Now 23, Ezra has made a routine of visiting the preschool two mornings each week, spending ninety minutes or so reading picture books in a lively, animated voice to eager and delighted audiences. Over time, he has proved so adept at the job (and enjoyed it so much) that he has added another couple of schools to his rotation.
I knew my son had truly made an impact when, not long ago, Ezra and I were at a neighborhood supermarket and encountered another shopper pushing her cart up the produce aisle. Her young son looked up, and, his eyes suddenly as wide as if he had spotted Big Bird, pointed excitedly at my son.
“Mommy!” he said. “That’s Ezra! He reads to me!”
Ezra flashed a proud smile. “Yeah!” he said. “You know me!”
What more could anyone want than to be known, to be recognized, to be appreciated?
I think of that moment whenever I hear discussions about how to make our communities more inclusive of people with disabilities. Often the conversations focus on programs or policies or committees. Important as those are, to me, the hero of Ezra’s story was the woman who tapped me on the shoulder that Shabbat morning. She didn’t have special training and she didn’t serve on a committee. She was simply a human being who had her eyes open enough to be sensitive to the variety of people around her and to recognize when something special was happening.
That’s the kind of person I want around my son and the kind community I want to be part of: one with safe, comfortable, spaces where one person can encounter another person who might get around differently or speak differently or experience the world in a different way. Places where, together, we can share a moment, a book and a smile.