My Experience: Autism And Judaism
04/03/2014 - 06:56
Nadine Silber

Like all human beings my unique personal identity is composed of many facets. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a daughter and a wife, a Democrat, a citizen of the United States, a writer and a former attorney. I am also an autistic Jew. I am proud to be all of the above. I like who I am. There are times, though, when much to my sadness, it is not easy to be both autistic and Jewish. While my religion places great value on empathy and inclusiveness, not all those who practice it do. While my people have risked their lives to stand in solidarity with others who have been disenfranchised, there have been times when we have neglected to stand in support of one another.

Autism means that I have some challenges but also many strengths. At the most fundamental level it just means I'm "wired differently" to borrow a phrase. As we Jews know, people fear difference and fear can lead to many bad things. I would like both autistic people and Jewish people to be appreciated and accepted simply as a source of diversity.

We have been called “the people of the book” in recognition of the importance we place on learning. How ironic, then, that we have a history of denying our own children access to a Jewish education when they have significant learning differences. This practice is more than unjust. It flies in the face of our most fundamental religious teaching and our proud cultural history.

In Judaism we are taught that we have an obligation to perform tzedakah. Tzedakah is often translated as “charity” but that is really an inaccurate description. The word "tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew root meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. Jews are commanded to perform tzedakah, not as a form of benevolence or in anticipation of a heavenly reward. We are commanded to perform Tzedakah because we are expected to work in the cause of justice.

According to the Talmud there are eight levels of tzedakah. The lowest level is to render aid begrudgingly and the highest level is to give the recipient the means to become self-reliant. The means to become reliant does not refer merely to financial status. Denying a person access to the same quality of education as another simply because they learn differently, thus, insults the fundamental teachings of the Jewish religion.

The Jewish people have been actively involved in the civil rights movement in this country since its inception. One black leader in Mississippi estimated that, in the 1960s, the critical decade of the voting-registration drives, "as many as 90 percent of the civil rights lawyers in Mississippi were Jewish." Jews, similarly, made up at least 30 percent of the white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South, registered blacks, and picketed segregated establishments. This is a proud history. Allowing children with learning differences and disabilities to be placed only in segregated classrooms, camps and programs, or even worse, to be denied access at all, is an insult to our parents and grandparents who fought to do away with the concept of “separate but equal.”

I believe that change is on the horizon, though. I have been asked to speak a few times at synagogues and to Jewish groups about how to make the Jewish community more inclusive for autistic people. It took a long a long time, but someone finally asked.

This is what I told them. I want to be welcome in a place where I can be Jewish joyfully even if my joy looks different than yours. I want you to never think that you know exactly what I'm capable of unless I tell you myself. I want you to help me to thrive by accepting me as I am, accommodating my needs as necessary and getting to know me as an individual rather than a diagnosis. I asked them to think about what tzedakah really meant and the pride that we felt as a people for having stood up to fight for justice, equality, and inclusion.

Their response indicated that they had heard me. At my last presentation, for example, people throughout the room raised their hands to ask questions. They wanted to know as much as possible about what they could do specifically. Among other things, we brainstormed some ideas for creating sensory friendly areas during synagogue services and using visual aids wherever possible. After the presentation, numerous people approached me and shared personal stories. Many asked if they should have done something differently during various encounters with autistic individuals. They wanted to say and do the right things to make people truly feel welcome and valued. I was very encouraged by the response. When I looked at those people I saw my people welcoming me and it affirmed my belief and my pride in the Jewish community.

Nadine Silber is an autistic Jewish woman and considers both to be important parts of her identity. She holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and practiced as a child advocate and as a public defender. She has retired from her legal career and is now a full-time writer and educator. She lives with her husband and two children in the Philadelphia area.

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