Postcards for Alec: On Shabbat, Asperger's, and Making New Friends
This post is part of #JDAMblogs, a series of blog posts throughout the Jewish community during the month of February in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). #JDAMblogs is the brainchild of Lisa Friedman, who blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block. You can participate by writing your own post and linking up with Lisa.
I expected to come back from December’s Union for Reform Judaism Biennial filled with reports of interesting learning sessions, inspiring speeches, and endless aisles of Judaica-filled exhibits. I can scarcely describe the euphoria of old friends greeting each other with high-pitched squeals and giant hugs – a Jewish summer camp reunion multiplied by 100.
What I didn’t expect was an incredible Shabbat experience with Alec.
At 5:00 p.m. on Shabbat, more than 5,000 Biennial attendees waited for the doors of our temporary sanctuary to open. As an avid Red Sox fan, I have certainly been with 5,000 people before, and because I was active in my synagogue youth group and summer camp growing up, I’ve prayed with hundreds of people. Praying with 5,000 people, though, would be a new experience for me.
As I scanned the crowd to try to find a familiar face, Alec turned to me and introduced himself. Clean-shaven in a button-down shirt and a bowtie, he shook my hands and gave me his card. I took it expecting to see a job title, maybe some information about his synagogue, but Alec’s card, which didn’t list either of those things, was different. When he started asking me a lot of questions, I began to realize that I wasn’t just meeting another colleague.
Alec was alone at the Biennial. When he gave me a hug and asked me to be his friend, I hugged him back – and of course said I would. He introduced himself to my husband, David, and asked him to be friends, too. As we stood together waiting for the doors to open so we could welcome Shabbat, Alec asked us a lot of personal questions, which we answered with smiles. We learned that we were the same age and, of course, the same religion. When we asked about his family, Alec explained that he lost his mom six years ago to pneumonia and his dad to cancer last June. From inside his Star Wars backpack filled with personal treasures, Alec pulled out a newspaper protected by a Ziploc bag and showed us the full-page tribute/obituary to his father, Roland. The obituary listed a sister, but when I asked about her, Alec told me they had not spoken for many years.
Reaching back into his backpack, Alec proudly displayed photos of the funeral he arranged for his father with full military honors. He explained that his dad, a WWII veteran, would have been so proud of the horse-drawn carriage and soldiers standing at attention. He said he was thankful for the help he received from the Miramar National Cemetery, Am Israel Mortuary, and the clergy at Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego.
Can you imagine? I heard this outpouring of emotion, love, and sorrow all in the 10 minutes while waiting to go into services! Alec was hugging me, reaching often to clasp my right hand in both of his while putting his head on my shoulder and telling me that I was his blessing. Repeatedly he told me, “Oh, Rhonda, you’re my blessing.” I’m his blessing, I thought to myself, as he continued, “I have Asperger’s syndrome. Do you know what that is?” I told him I was familiar with the autism spectrum disorder, and when he asked me how I knew, I told him I’m a teacher. Again, Alec told me that I was his blessing – and said I must be a wonderful teacher. As the doors to Shabbat services opened, he thanked me for being his special friend.
Alec sat with us during services. We shared a siddur (prayer book), but neither one of us could see in the dim light. Still, Alec knew every word and sang from his heart. His voice still echoes in my ear. He sniffled a few times, and I did, too. How can one not be affected by 5,000 voices joining in prayer? We stood for Mourner’s Kaddish, and I reached up to put my arm around Alec’s shoulder. Yes, Shabbat services were extraordinary. I was not prepared to be in a space with 5,000 Jews of all ages, all praying the same words together – and I was certainly not prepared to meet anyone as special as Alec.
That week, I met colleagues from all over the continent, but my interaction with Alec was some of the most rewarding time spent. From him, I found that there are lessons to be learned from every individual. Alec is not involved in Jewish education, like I am; he was attending Shabbat services because the Biennial was in his hometown. Initially, our only common link was Judaism. Alec’s Asperger’s makes him very outgoing, and for some people, this can be a turn-off. For me, though, it was comforting to find a friendly face in a large crowd of strangers. He needed a friend; I welcomed a friend.
Alec likes to have friends from places he knows he’ll never get to visit. On your next trip, pick up a post-card and write a quick note to Alec. Tell him you’re Rhonda’s friend, too. I’d be happy to forward it to him. Will you help me with this project? After all, Alec is our blessing. Maybe the wording of his business card can best explain it:
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind” – Dr. Seuss
Rhonda Magier-Cohen is the director of curriculum and family education at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA, where she also serves as a b’nai mitzvah tutor. She is a 2011 winner of the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education and a former teacher at Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA.
Please forward postcards for Alec to Rhonda’s attention at Temple Shir Tikva, 141 Boston Post Road, Wayland, MA 01778.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.