If I Can Do It, So Can You
Being Jewish and having a congenital bone deficiency has made my life path quite unique, so I would like to share my story.
I was raised as a Conservative Jew in a kosher home in Dolton, IL, a south suburb of Chicago, which at the time had a half dozen Jewish families, including ours. Our synagogue was in Hammond, IN, and we were there often – Hebrew school twice a week, morning services on Shabbat, and, of course, Sunday school on Sundays. We spent the High Holidays with my grandparents, Bubbie and Papa, at their synagogue in Albany Park, a neighborhood in Chicago that once had a large Jewish population. Being Jewish has always been important and special to me.
I’ve always connected to Judaism. As a people, we have struggled to maintain our Jewish heritage, and throughout history, we have been persecuted simply for being Jewish. Throughout my life, I have also struggled for what I’ve achieved and have come to learn that anything worth having is worth working for – and those things don’t come easy.
I was born with a severe lower limb disability; I am missing bones in both of my legs. At the time, the obstetrician told my parents they should institutionalize me. He made this decision based on one thing and one thing only: my body, with no accounting for my spirit, my soul, or what is in each of us that makes us tick. Other doctors felt I would be fine and make my way in the world.
Thank goodness my parents opted to bring me home and raise me, striving not to treat me any differently than my older, able-bodied sister, Rena. Today, I wear artificial legs that make me 5’8” tall; without them I am only 3’9”.
Around the age of 5 or 6, I came to realize a few things about myself: I had keen body awareness, and I was aware of my spiritual side, as well. I knew I was different but also felt I had been put into this body for a reason – and that God had purposefully done so.
It was about this same time that I started attending Sunday school, learning about our Judaism and the concept of being “the Chosen People.” Just as I felt chosen to be in the body I am in, I also felt chosen to be Jewish; from my 6-year-old perspective, that seemed to be pretty logical.
But chosen for what?
I had wonderful parents who guided me to be responsible and independent. No matter what, they were present, supporting me at athletic events and encouraging me in all my endeavors. They live on in my heart, and many of the words I speak today are the same ones they spoke to me: “You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. Attitude is everything. You can achieve anything if you have a good attitude.” Being that source of support for loved ones can change lives.
Indeed, I believe I was put in this body to help other people – to inspire and motivate them.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) my disability, I became an athlete. I learned to ride a two-wheel bike, and I played Little League baseball. In high school and college, I became an accomplished gymnast, competing against able-bodied athletes, and in 1996, I played sitting volleyball at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta.
Thirty years ago, when I started coaching inner city youth in gymnastics, I soon realized that my own intense drive to persevere made a strong impression on my young athletes – and that I have a unique ability to motivate others.
I teach them what I have come to believe about myself and about each of us: If you follow your heart, success will chase you – no matter how you define success. In other words, pursue your dreams with passion and believe in yourself, and you are sure to find success.
This is the universal message I share not only with athletes, but also through my endeavors to help individuals from all walks of life meet challenges head-on and overcome adversity. I have shared the Yes, You Can! program widely, including at my own Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, IL, and at synagogues, corporations, schools, and elsewhere throughout North America.
I believe it was no accident I was born in this body, that God put me – and all of us – here for a reason. Each of us just needs to figure out what that reason is.