Finding Faith in a Community: One Young Man's Remarkable Journey
Today marks the day our late son and brother, Jeffrey B. Plevan, would have turned 38 years old. Judaism was an enormous part of Jeff’s life, and he received a rich Jewish education despite having significant learning disabilities. He majored in Jewish studies in college, received a master’s degree in Jewish communal service at Gratz College near Philadelphia, worked for Jewish organizations, and was involved in Jewish religious life as an adult. Jeff died suddenly of a heart attack nearly two years ago on his way to a Gratz College alumni event to celebrate his and others’ service to Jewish life.
Jeff’s Jewish journey began during his youth through his connection to Central Synagogue in New York, which our family joined 38 years ago. We who were blessed to watch him grow up saw firsthand how a synagogue community can give a child with disabilities a place in Jewish life when they embrace that child with all their differences.
By age 3, Jeff had been diagnosed with severely delayed speech, which began his journey as a child through intense speech and occupational therapy and schools for students with special educational needs. As a child, Jeff compensated for these challenges with a vivid imagination and a remarkable ability to absorb information from visual stimuli. When he was 3 or 4 years old, Jeff was captivated by the visual trappings of the Torah service and would play out the service at home using a plush toy Torah he had acquired at a Simchat Torah service at the synagogue. Jeff would place his toy Torah behind the vertical blinds in our dining room, which could be opened and closed with a pull cord, and then gather everyone in the family into the room and hand out towels to be worn as tallitot (prayer shawls). He would then open the blinds, take out his Torah, and march around the room. At an age when Jeff’s verbal speech was extremely limited, he could express his connection to a religious experience through self-initiated play-acting.
When Jeff began religious school at Central Synagogue from the age of 5, we knew learning Hebrew and having a bar mitzvah would be a challenge. His many wonderful teachers gave him a rich Jewish learning experience, and the synagogue’s cantor, who also had a background in special education, taught him to read a small amount of Torah at his bar mitzvah ceremony. The synagogue made it possible for Jeff to have a bar mitzvah without sharing the bimah with another child (which was the typical practice at our congregation); this gave him and us the opportunity to celebrate his commitment and passion without comparing the skill of others to his own.
As a teen, Jeff actively participated in synagogue life through confirmation class, synagogue youth group, and regional retreats with the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). Research has shown that the most important factors in allowing students with learning disabilities to succeed in life are social and emotional – gaining the confidence to overcome challenges and the self-esteem to maintain optimism and avoid depression. Jeff’s synagogue youth community embraced him with all his differences, which gave him a peer group outside of his special education environment. This was something almost impossible for him to find elsewhere, and it allowed him to build the confidence to navigate social life as an adult. Jeff loved all this so much that when he was accepted to a boarding school in Connecticut that served his educational needs, he agreed to go on one condition: that he could take the train into the New York every Tuesday to continue his confirmation class there with Rabbi Peter Rubinstein.
Perhaps Jeff understood how vital these experiences were for gaining self-esteem; our family certainly did. At a recent event in Jeff’s memory, our good friend Rabbi Stanley Davids, who officiated at Jeff’s bar mitzvah, compared Jeff to the Biblical character Nachson, who, according to a Midrash, started walking into the Red Sea when the Israelites reached its shore after fleeing Egypt. Because of Nachson’s faithful act of entering the water, it was only then did the sea split. Jeff showed the same kind of faith.
“Like Nachshon,” Rabbi Davids offered, “he looked at his reality – and chose to see it differently.” Jeff didn’t look at the world as a series of limitations. He looked at the world as a series of endless possibilities.
Betsy and Ken Plevan, Jeff’s parents, are attorneys who have lived in Manhattan for 40 years and have been members of Central Synagogue for 38 years. Jeff’s brother Bill Plevan is a rabbi living in New York and is the chair of the board of Matan, an organization dedicated to helping students with challenges have access to a Jewish education.