My brother is my rebbe and my greatest teacher. He has taught me that our greatest passion must be compassion. He has taught me what it means to be a loving, kind, and sensitive individual. Born with Fragile X, a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability, behavioral and learning challenges, Mike has never allowed his disabilities to define him. In fact, he continually defies it. Most importantly, Mike has shown me and everyone around him what it means to be resilient, to have true grit. He is the only one who decides what he can and cannot do.
After graduating from a special needs school, he demanded that he get a job, despite job coaches claiming it would be impossible for someone with such severe mental disabilities to hold down a job. “He cannot focus on anything. How is even going to get here?” they would say. He silenced his critics and has had the same job washing dishes at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, MD for over twenty years. Up long before the sun, taking two different buses, rain or snow, he always made it to work.
In 2010, he became the first Special Olympian to be inducted into the Washington’s JCC Sports Hall of Fame. He won his first gold medal when he was just ten years old and just a couple of years ago his team won the State of Maryland Special Olympics Basketball tournament. All of this has been accomplished despite doctors and other medical experts telling my parents that he would never be able to ride a bike or shoot a basket. I will even admit that he can beat me in a game of horse and has the only bike that I have ever seen where he actually wore the tires down to the rubber.
Recently, Mike suffered a debilitating spinal stroke that left him in the hospital for nearly four months with no ability to move his legs. “I will walk again” he told us. Sure enough, he is now moving around with a walker and continues to progress every day. He has never complained or felt sorry for himself despite everything working against him. He just keeps smiling and saying, “I’m okay. I’m okay”.
How can we continue to ensure that our communities continue down the path of inclusivity for the 1 in 5 people who have disabilities, like my brother? We first need a new paradigm for the way that we think about those with disabilities. Our biggest mistake has been seeing ourselves as the sole “caregiver” and those with disabilities as the recipient. We give and they receive as if it was a one-sided relationship. The truth is though, just as much as those with disabilities need us, we need them even more. If we were to open ourselves up, we could learn so much.
We need to begin seeing how much they can enrich our lives, not just the impact we can have on theirs. It’s not just what we can do for them, but what they can do for us. We need to stop thinking about volunteering and more about building relationships. Synagogues host group homes for special shabbat dinners all the time but the meals are often void of congregants. It’s not enough to just create inclusive spaces but we also need to actively participate in these spaces.
Jewish tradition teaches us that wisdom comes from our ability to learn from everyone. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv goes even further and explains that true wisdom comes when we learn not just from everyone but “from the entire person”. What a powerful reminder that is as we reflect during this month of Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion about our achievements and the work that still needs to be done.
Jon Leener is currently in his final year of studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Jon is a Base Hillel co-founder and is the spiritual leader for Base BKLYN in Williamsburg. Previously, he served as the rabbinic intern at Sherith Israel Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee and Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland. Before entering rabbinical school, Jon studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a Jewish educator, Jon aims to make Judaism more lively, relevant, and accessible to Jews of all backgrounds.