Almost half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. He spoke about the promise of emancipation for Negroes, and how in the ensuing century, the plight of the Negro had not substantially changed. This was not the problem of Negroes alone, King urged, because no white man could feel free contributing to the Negro’s oppression through silence and inaction. King reminded us that America is founded on biblical principles – justice, equality, dignity – but it had failed in its mission to live up those principles. Having witnessed so much violence against blacks, King had great reason to be pessimistic. But religion is about optimism, and as a religious leader he believed in hope and he believed that when shown the truth people would choose right and justice. King had a dream that one day, even in Alabama, perhaps the most racist state in the nation, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” He had a dream that his four little children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of the skin but by the content of their character.”
Those biblical principles that Dr. King spoke of are Judaism’s contribution to the world. But like America in the 1960’s, the Jewish community has forgotten that all of God’s creatures are made in God’s image. We have been willing to settle for segregation.
So I have a dream too. I have a dream that one day, in synagogues and Jewish camps throughout the United States, wherever Jews gather for comfort and support and connection, autistic Jewish boys and girls will be able to join hands with typically developing Jewish boys and girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream that one day, I and my friends with autism will be judged not by our strange sensory responses that we so despise, but by the content of our character. I have a dream that one day I will be able to walk into any synagogue or Jewish organization and no one will give me icy stares when I slip up and get too excited and noisy. I have a dream that one day in our day schools, where future Jewish leaders are created, Jewish students with ADD and learning disabilities won’t politely be invited to leave to attend public schools and fed the canard that it is for their own good. I have a dream that bimheirah b’yameinu – speedily, in our day — I will have made myself superfluous because it will no longer be necessary for me to come before you and speak about including people with disabilities in the Jewish community.
Like Dr. King, I have complete faith that it is within our power to rectify the isolation and pain felt by so many individuals with autism and their families. Our movement has already heeded the call for justice and dignity for women and gays. Now it is the turn of people with disabilities. We have all the tools we need in our tradition and in our hearts.
A perfect example of this is the Pesach Sheni. In Parashat Be-ha’alotkha, God instructs Moses on the first anniversary of the Exodus about the Passover sacrifice. God directs that this sacrifice be offered on the fourteenth day of the month in a specific manner. On the appointed day, however, a group of men approaches Moses with a problem. They were ritually impure by virtue of having come in contact with a corpse and thus could not offer a sacrifice. Why, these men inquire of Moses, should they be separated from the community and deprived of making the sacrifice with everyone else? Moses seeks guidance from God, who instructs Moses that anyone who is unable to offer the sacrifice on the originally scheduled date may offer it one month later, on the fourteenth day of the following month. This Pesach Sheni, or second Passover, has exactly the same effect as the original sacrifice.
Pesach Sheni is a perfect metaphor for inclusion of people with autism and other special needs in the community. Moses could have responded by strictly enforcing God’s rule and telling the men they were out of luck if they couldn’t comply. But the measure of Moses’ greatness as a leader is that Moses saw it as his job to ensure that no one was excluded from the community simply because, through no fault of their own, they could not participate in exactly the same way as everyone else.
Edmund Burke once wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Burke probably got that line from Moses. Moses wasn’t constrained by what existed. He examined the situation and recognized that exclusion could not possibly be God’s command.
Gentlemen, you are all leaders of the Mens’ Club and leaders of our Movement. You are our modern-day Moseses. You have taken the reins of leadership by inviting me to participate in today’s session and including me as a guest blogger on Mentschen. Including people with special needs is not rocket science. First, it takes an attitude that all people are created in God’s image and it is our job to find the part of God hidden in each person. Then it takes small gestures like smiling at people with disabilities and including them in your conversation and at your Kiddush table. And finally, it takes an openness to learning from them how to create the next Pesach Sheni that will enrich us all.
Last summer I attended my twin cousins’ bnei mitzvah. Those of you who know me know that I pray very enthusiastically, so I was quite noticeable among all the other congregants, who were sitting quietly and decorously. At the party that night, an educator from my cousins’ Jewish day school told us that after the service, her kids asked why I was allowed to dance and clap during the service. So, the mom explained that I have autism and downloaded some of my speeches and articles off the Internet and read them with her kids. Of course I was pleased that they found my words inspiring, but I think the mom actually missed the main point of the question. I think the kids were asking: why can’t we all dance and clap during the service? In fact, my aunt said that several of the parents commented that my dancing and enthusiasm were the highlight of the service for them. So, that day, I got to teach some Torah through my autism. I got to teach that prayer is when your body, heart and mind are all in harmony. That is certainly true for me when I pray, and I used to think it was because autism makes it so hard for me to coordinate my movement with my thoughts. But everyone struggles to integrate their spiritual, emotional and intellectual selves. At our synagogue, everyone can dance and clap during the davening whether they have autism or not.
In his speech, Dr. King spoke of the many white people in attendance at the march and how the destinies of both whites and blacks were linked by the pursuit of justice. We Jews played a prominent role in the civil rights movement, marching with Dr. King and supporting integration in numerous other ways. The defining story of our people is the Exodus story, and it was to that same story that King alluded in his famous concluding passage “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last!” In his book Exodus and Revolution, Michael Walzer, a political science professor at Princeton University, wrote that the enduring appeal of the Exodus story lies in the following truth:
first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land,
and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
In the 15 years since I was diagnosed with autism, the Jewish community has made strides toward inclusion, but we still have a very long path ahead of us. I hope you will join together and march with me toward the day when we can all stand together at Mt. Sinai as one people, the day when everyone is included and together we bring God’s glory to all of humanity.