Heroes Come in All Shapes and Sizes
In 1937, my grandfather and great-uncle left Germany for America. My grandfather was young – maybe 17 – but he was mature and ready for the journey. Among his many preparations for the voyage and arrival in New York, my grandfather did something rather unusual: He took lip-reading lessons.
My grandfather was deaf. He was not born deaf, but rather lost his hearing after contracting meningitis at age three. And at the young age of just 17, he understood that arriving in America with a discernible disability would mean being turned away and sent back to a land where his disability would surely lead to an untimely death. He was able to fool the immigration officer with whom he met, but on his way out the door, the officer said something, which of course my grandfather did not hear. After the officer was able to catch my grandfather’s attention, my grandfather apologized, claiming that he caught a terrible cold on the trip, and his ears were so clogged that he was unable to hear. My grandfather was smart and resourceful, and he is one of my heroes.
In my two careers – first as a public school music teacher, and now as a cantor – I have been privileged to work with people with various disabilities, many of whom I would call heroes. In 2006, when I was working in the public schools, a young man with Down syndrome was placed in my band. He wanted to play the clarinet because a character in the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants played it – and he loved to play that clarinet. When it came time for our spring concert, this young man was not able to participate in the full ensemble pieces, but he proudly played a solo that was just right for his abilities. He played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and at the end, when he stood to take his bow, he looked up to see the audience on its feet, giving him a standing ovation.
Years later, while working at my student pulpit, the rabbi approached me about a bar mitzvah that was a year away. In fact, my rabbi was not inquiring about the bar mitzvah boy, but about his older brother, a young man with several severe disabilities. The family wanted to have a b’nai mitzvah for both of their sons. Every week for about a year, I met with the older of the two boys, teaching him and watching him grow and learn. When it came time for the bar mitzvah, he chanted a few prayers, and, with only a little prompting, was able to chant the Torah blessings and a few verses of Torah.
These two young men, like my grandfather, epitomize perseverance and success – signs of a true hero.
When we read the beginning of Exodus, we are reminded that having a disability does not prohibit greatness nor does it define a person’s worth. When Moses protests to God, claiming that he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” God’s responds simply: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, Adonai? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (Ex.4:11-12) Though Moses was not able to see his own value or see past his disability, God knew that Moses held great potential.
Rather than look away when we see someone in a wheelchair, or automatically assume we cannot have a conversation with someone who is deaf, or assume that the young person making noise in the back of the room is a “bad kid,” we should take a moment to try to see each person’s value. Every year, students across the country study African-American heroes during Black History Month, or female heroes during Women’s History Month. February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, April is Autism Awareness Month, August is Spinal Muscular Atrophy Month, and November is Epilepsy Awareness Month. During each of these months, and all year round, we should be on the lookout for new heroes to celebrate, no matter their physical or cognitive abilities.
My grandfather and the two young men with whom I worked are just three examples of heroes who persevered despite the cards they were dealt. Who will be the heroes you celebrate?
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. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.