Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Torah Connection - Tetzaveh (and Purim!)

Well, here is the belated Purim post I promised.

My 3rd child is having her Bat Mitzvah very soon, so I decided this week to to to synagogue just with her, and go for the whole service (2.5 hours) to get a feel for what it feels like and how all the parts fit together. With small children, we usually just come for the last hour or so, so the first half is not very familiar to us.....

Anyway, it is interesting that we came this particular week.  This is the parsha just before Purim, and she will be doing the parsha just before Pesach (Passover) four weeks later.  As she read along in her Chumash, she noticed that many verses were almost identical to those that she will be reading!  Turns out that there are many parallels:

1. This parsha is called "Tetzaveh" - "You will command", while my daughter will read "Tzav" - "Commanded".  In other words, there is a good reason for the similarity in the text!  Here we announce what we will do, while next month we will make good on these intentions.

2. Both Purim and Pesach are holidays of deliverance from those who would annihilate us.

3. Both this parsha and the Pesach Hagaddah share an interesting feature: Moses, although clearly central to the story, is never mentioned by name! Many commentators have suggested that this omission in the Hagaddah is intended to avoid the creation of a Moses cult -- all credit goes to G*d alone.

4. Related to this, however, is that the Scroll of Esther, read during Purim, omits any mention of G*d! The story reads like a secular folk tale, with sex and violence, drama and intrigue. The only hint of G*d's hand is a line by Esther's uncle Mordechai, to the effect that if she does not rise the challenge of the moment, that "help will come from another place, but you and your family will perish."  The message of Purim is that even when G*d is hidden, He is not truly absent, but merely "disguised" as a pattern in natural or human events.  The absence of Moses from the Hagaddah and from Parshat Tetzaveh can likewise be seen as a "hiddenness" rather than an actual absence.

On Purim, there are several customs, besides the reading of the Megillah (Scroll):

1. Adults and children alike dress in costumes, both to re-enact the story (Purim-spiel) and for general merriment.  This is a form of hiddenness, certainly.  However, adults are instructed to drink to intoxication.  Is your true self hidden or revealed in drunkenness? Or both?

2. All are instructed to both donate to charity (Matanot La-evyonim) and give goody-baskets to our friends (Mishloach Manot).  Which takes precedence, looking outwards to the truly needy, or taking care of our own?  Or both?

3. A theme in both the Purim story and the Haftorah for the Shabbat before Purim (Shabat Zachor - "remember") is that the ancient "Amalekites" are the perennial enemies of the Jewish people.  We are instructed to both remember them and obliterate their memory.  How can we do both?

A lighthearted holiday full of fun, it nonetheless hides within it some incredible richness and depth.  No wonder it has been said that in the days of the Messiah, all holidays will be abolished except Purim!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Serbian mental institutions revisited

NBC News just put up a 3-part series on the predicament of children and adults with special needs in Serbia.  This contains much footage from a much shorter (and very disturbing) 2008 video, but also includes followups, as well as a look into the very real dilemma faced by Serbian parents of special needs infants, as they must choose between relinquishing their child to these horrible places, or trying to raise a disabled child without medical or educational resources, and often without the support of family.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month

Yikes!  My Jewish calendar has been staring at me all month, and I did not notice until now that February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month!  Talk about unaware....

So here is what my calendar says about it:

"Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind." - Leviticus 19:14

Jewish law and tradition requires that we not only assist individuals with disabilities, but also enable them to reach their potential and protect their self-esteem.  The mission of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, begun in 2009, is to encourage synagogues and Jewish organizations to support the full inclusion of people with special needs in all aspects of Jewish life.  Many synagogues schedule "Disabilities Shabbat," featuring the participation of children and adults with disabilities.  Other sponsor programs to lobby for disability rights.

Congregations throughout North America have taken steps to remove barriers to worship, whether architectural (ramps, handrails, wider doorways, grab bars in the restroom, accessible parking) or communicative (assistive listening devices, sign language interpreters, large-print materials, braille prayerbooks).

My congregation is actually pretty good on this stuff, although there is certainly room for improvement.  There are several adults and children with disabilities who are fully participating members of the community.

Since there is only one Shabbat left in February, and it's Purim eve, I don't know how much we can incorporate into it this year.  Hopefully we can at least plant a seed for next year?  Maybe brainstorm about what kinds of projects or activities would be apporpriate?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Torah Connection - Mishpatim

Mishpatim -- the Laws -- continue scattered throughout the next several books of the Torah.  Much Biblical analysis has gone into interpreting these laws so that they continue to be relevant in today's society, but I don't want to go there.  Either the laws are acceptable as they are for all ages, or they were made for their time and place.  If we re-interpret them to suit today's world, then we are making G*d in our own image.  I think that accepting them in their own context, as one step in the civilization of the People of Israel, does not require following them to the letter today.  Everyone draws the line somewhere.  Some don't bother keeping kosher, some are dismissive of the sexual restrictions, but even the most Orthodox do not follow the prescribed penalties for the various transgressions.  At most they use the aforementioned re-interpretation to deduce principles of compensation in human relationships.

There is a short passage describing the major festivals -- Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).  Then Moses and the leaders of the people prepare to ascend Mt. Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Covenant.

At this point, is a most incredible description:

24:10 They saw a vision of the G*d of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear [blue] sky.

and a little later, the whole people see the following vision:

24:17 To the Israelites, the appearance of G*d's glory on the mountain top was like a devouring flame.

Compare this to the vision with the Burning Bush at the beginning of the book of Exodus:

3:2 God's angel appeared to [Moses] in the heart of a fire, in the middle of a thorn-bush. As he looked, [Moses] realized that the bush was on fire, but was not being consumed.

What does it mean to be touched by the Divine? What is this burning fire, or this bejeweled clear blue sky "at the feet of" the Divine Presence? 

The Waltzing Bear

I was showing someone some of the stories about people with Down syndrome who succeed in pursuing a normal life in spite of the odds, and he said, "This is like the Waltzing Bear.  It's not that he dances so well, but that he dances at all."

This is actually not that unlike what most people think of children and adults with Down syndrome, I suspect.  Sadly, they are viewed as little more than animals, properly kept in cages or protected areas.... or killed if they are in the way.  They are seen as "trainable", but somehow not fully human.

But what if it turned out that bears were far more capable and intelligent than we give them credit for?  What if it turned out that with the proper care and assistive technology, they could learn to talk, read, write, and function in society? And that some bears could in fact learn to waltz, as well as pursue music, sports, arts, etc?  That they could have meaningful relationships with both people and other bears?  How would we then feel about seeing bears kept in cages at the zoo, deprived of the opportunity to fulfill their potential?  Would we not want to shout far and wide for these bears to be released, adopted into homes where they could get the care and assistance they need to blossom, and accorded a proper place in society?  Would we not want to see a world where a dancing bear is appreciated for his joy and creativity, rather than dismissed as an oddity?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Two awesome Down syndrome stories

One of my featured blogs, Noah's Dad, posted about a young Brazilian actor with Down syndrome whose dream is for Sean Penn (who inspired him to pursue acting in the first place) to come to Brazil to see the opening night of the movie he is starring in -- "Colleagues". Watch the trailer and share, maybe the dream will come true!

Well, I posted this to Facebook, and an old friend of mine commented:

You may enjoy this article. I have known Frankie for many years: http://www.lohud.com/article/20100221/SPORTS01/2210345/Frankie-Scarfone-Unexpected-master-black-belt

 Amazing story.  Especially when you consider this guy's age (46) in light of his mom's recollections of the standard medical advice to institutionalize him because he'd never amount to anything......

Double happy ending/beginning

Two families caught in the Russian Adoption Ban limbo found themselves waiting in the same Moscow hotel for court decrees for their new children.  These children are both about 4-5 years old. One is a boy, now known as Gabe Preece:

And the other is a girl, Vika Bonner:

Although these munchkins were in 2 separate orphanages, they are now good friends, embarking on this amazing experience of having a family.

These are examples of children who are rescued from institutional life while still in "Baby Houses", where they get to play, interact with loving caretakers, and develop basic skills.  Of course there is still much ground to cover once they get home, in terms of medical care, therapy, level of attention etc., but these are children who can walk, talk, play appropriately, and give and receive affection. 

It's fun reading their stories side by side.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Torah Connection - Yitro

Ah, here we have the 10 Commandments.  So much has been written about them, I won't repeat it.

But the chapter starts with a completely different theme.  First, we have a family reunion as Moses's father-in-law Jethro (Yitro) joins the traveling Israelites, learns of their miraculous exploits, and makes an offering to G*d in gratitude for their redemption.

Soon, however, Yitro observes the extent to which Moses burdens himself with all the troubles of the people:

13 Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. 14 But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" 15 Moses replied to his father-in-law, "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God." 

From the vantage point of his experience as High Priest of Midian, Yitro offers the following advice:

17 But Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; 18 you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, 20 and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. 21 You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and 22 let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. 23 If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied."
What a parallel to modern parenting, especially in the case of adoption and/or special needs.  The parents, especially moms, have a tendency to take on everything on themselves.  Clean up after everybody, do all the feeding, laundry, driving, homework help etc.  It is so hard to delegate!  To say, "No, you can do this yourself."  Or, "Please, can you help me with this chore."  Or, "Please help your little brother with this."  It is even hard to accept help from relatives and friends. 

Moses takes Yitro's advice to heart:

24 Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said. 25 Moses chose capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people — chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens; 26 and they judged the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves. 27 Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way to his own land.

Thus, Moses was "able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied."  How much more are we able to accomplish when we delegate to others the tasks that they can -- and should -- do?  Is it a coincidence that the revelation at Sinai occurs directly after this?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Torah Connection - Beshalach

What a chapter!  This reading includes 4 distinct miracles:

1. The splitting of the Sea of Reeds (and drowning of the Egyptian army). This is actually less of a miracle than the usual dramatization of it.  According to the text, the split was not instantaneous, but happened gradually overnight as a strong wind blew the water aside.  Since we are talking here about a sea of reeds -- a marsh, not the Red Sea as is frequently mis-translated -- this is not that crazy a notion.  Nonetheless, the context of the split, happening as it did just in time for the former slaves to escape, and then drowning their pursuers, has made it a focal moment in the genesis of the Jewish People.

2. The bitter waters of Marah were turned sweet when Moses threw in a piece of wood as directed by G*d.  This is an interesting allegory for the nature of faith.  The text reads:

23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" 25 So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.
There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test. 26 He said, "If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer." 
 The bitterness of the water parallels the bitterness of the people's grumbling.  The wood represents the commandments. Following the commandments may seem onerous, and frequently illogical (what's logical about throwing a piece of wood into the pool of water?) but in fact doing so allows the bitterness to dissipate.

This section is concluded with an image of harmony:
27 And they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there beside the water. 
Twelve springs - one for each tribe. And seventy palm trees - one for each person who originally came to Egypt with Jacob.  And they all encamped besides the water (which represents the commandments).  Now there is no need for grumbling, or fighting over shared resources, as there was enough for everyone.

3. The giving of Manna and quails to the Israelites in the desert. Why was this a miracle?  Because each day the people were directed to collect just enough for that day, or else the food would spoil -- except for Friday! In preparation for the Sabbath, they were to collect twice as much.  The food would then not spoil, and no Manna would rain down on the Sabbath itself.

4. The victory over Amalek. Why was this a miracle? Because when Moses held his hands up to the heavens (as in prayer), Israel prevailed, but when he let his hands down (losing faith), Israel's forces weakened as well.  Seeing this, Aaron and Hur each held up one of Moses's hands, thus supporting him in his role.


Do we see miracles today?  Do things sometimes happen "just in time"? Do we find means of using our natural resources better? Is the Sabbath valuable in today's context?  Are we able to accomplish things against impossible odds when we have faith and the support of our friends and families?

This could have been us.

Back in September, I was talking with Leah Spring about her experience with adopting from Serbia.  She gave me some great contacts with COCI, and told me about a really sweet little boy with Down syndrome who was being fostered in the same home as one of her boys had been.

Then our plans got put on hold.

In the meantime, another family, the Lakes, were moving forward, and apparently they got matched with this very boy.  They are in country right now. They have just taken custody of him from the foster family a few days ago, and will be completing the adoption and coming home with him in the next few weeks.

I have followed many adoption stories, but this one feels particularly "real" to me.

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