Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Torah Connection - Behar/Behukotai

This week's doubled parsha is also the last reading in the book of Leviticus.  Frequently called the "Tochecha" - "Rebuke", it concludes with a listing of possible dedications for the Temple.  This is the basis for the practice of tithing, contributions for the support of the priests (kohanim).  One may tithe property directly, or "redeem" it by paying a monetary equivalent.  The monetary equivalent is assessed a premium, generally 20% of nominal value.

This section starts, however, with a listing of valuations for "vows of persons", assigning a monetary value to individuals who may be "consecrated":
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, 3 the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; 4 if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. 5 If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. 6 If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. 7 If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female. 8 But if one cannot afford the equivalent, he shall be presented before the priest, and the priest shall assess him; the priest shall assess him according to what the vower can afford.

What is this about?  Are these slaves being "consecrated" to the Temple?  Is it the vower consecrating him/herself? Why different valuations for different people?  Why are children younger than 1 month not even listed? It is easy to dismiss the lower valuation for females as simply a reflection of the sexism of those days, but what about the other differences? A child's valuation is the smallest.  A youth's valuation is about the same as a senior's, and an adult's valuation is much higher.  What is this, Disneyland ticket prices?  Perhaps, in a sense, yes.  Being "consecrated" to the Temple in some ways has a spiritual "admission price".  Does that make the sexism less egregious?  Does the sexism in this case simply imply a recognition that women, like minors and seniors, are a disadvantaged group that is less able to pay full fare?  Note that "financial aid" is also mentioned in the last verse:
8 But if one cannot afford the equivalent, he shall be presented before the priest, and the priest shall assess him; the priest shall assess him according to what the vower can afford.
Ostensibly a simple passage about providing for the day-to-day support of the Temple (in addition to the offerings described earlier in Leviticus), this reading has several layers of complexity.  No wonder most of the commentary on this Parsha prefers to focus on the blessings/curses!  And yet, this is the closing of the whole book of Leviticus!  Surely this is not to be ignored....  I did find one commentary, which suggests that the purpose of this "price list" is to reassure us of our fundamental worth before G*d, in spite of all the horrors which are prophesied just prior. The valuations are preset regardless of the person's level of observance or shortcomings. Given the questions above, though, this is really not satisfying.  Does G*d really value us differently based on age and gender?
I actually kinda like the Disneyland metaphor.  A spiritual "admissions price" that takes into account the customer's ability to pay.  
What do you think?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Down Syndrome Blogger

No, not a blog about Down syndrome.

 A blogger with Down syndrome. 

 She is 24 years old, and makes quilts for children in the local hospital. And she plays piano, has been a girl scout, graduated high school, etc. etc. So why not write a blog, too?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lag Ba'Omer

The fifty days from Pesach to Shavuot is traditionally counted, day by day and week by week, as the "Omer" - "Sheaf".  This is an agricultural practice, counting the days to the first harvest.  It is a somber time, during which traditional Jews do not hold weddings or other celebrations, and many refrain from haircuts during this time, as well.

Except for Lag Ba'Omer -- the 33rd day of the counting.  Israeli bridal shops do a brisk business in the weeks just before this date, and men's beards and hair is trimmed back from the leonine growth of over a month.  Children celebrate by picnicking and lighting bonfires in commemoration of the campaigns of Bar Kochba against the Romans 60 years after the fall of the Temple.

Here in the US we usually barely notice this holiday.  But today, with the warm spring sunshine, and a serendipitously free afternoon, my husband and I and the 2 little boys set up the porch swing on the back porch, and then I gave three of the four of us haircuts.  My littlest didn't want one, so he still has adorable blond Shirley Temple curls all over his head. Yes, I cut my own hair....  It's a bit shorter than I wanted, but not too bad!  Daddy and the big boy look great, though!

Not until after we were done did I realize that it actually is exactly Lag Ba'Omer today.  How cool is that?

Cherish Our Children International

Leah Spring, who is at this very moment bringing home her third adopted son with Down Syndrome from Serbia, also runs an info blog about Serbian adoption.  In her first adoption, she was burned by some corrupt agents and facilitators, and after working to expose and clean up the culprits, she educated herself about the Serbian process, which was transformed at the same time.  These days, all adoptions must be processed directly by the government Ministry of Justice -- no outside agencies are allowed. The process is very streamlined, taking only a few months altogether, with just about 3 weeks in-country.  Cutting out the middlemen has slashed costs, as well. An average Serbian adoption now costs $10-15K, less than half of most other countries.

Most adoptive families, however, are reluctant to proceed without the handholding of a knowledgeable agency.  Here is where Cherish Our Children International (COCI) comes in.  This is a non-profit organization with projects around the world, ranging from providing medical care and education to children in Kenya to sponsoring Jewish/Arab integrated soccer leagues for disadvantaged kids in Israel to helping incarcerated youths in Texas break the cycle of crime.  In Serbia, they work to improve the quality of life for institutionalized orphans, especially those with special needs.  As part of that, they assist adoptive parents with the logistics of the in-country process free of charge.

However, they also have projects aimed at helping integrate children with special needs into their society at home.  With minimal manpower, they find ways to make a difference in the lives of families, so that children with disabilities are able to have their needs met at home, in the care of their loving families, instead of being institutionalized for life.  Here is a 2-part video showing the kind of work they do:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What about RAD?

The scariest aspect of adoption is the possibility of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Now, all children going through a change in caregivers will have attachment issues - whether it is acquiring a new step-parent or being placed for foster care/adoption.  In most cases, however, these issues will gradually subside with parental consistency and love.  Parents can certainly make the normal process of attachment easier or harder by their actions, behaviors and expectations, but on rare occasions, the "normal process" simply fails to present itself.  A child will appear to go through the motions of bonding, but then either lash out at other family members, clam up into his/her own world, or show indiscriminate affection.

Really, not enough is known yet about RAD and what constitutes effective treatment for it.  Consistency - above and beyond that needed for all children - is foremost.  I suspect that unrealistic expectations play a big role in triggering RAD.  Parents who report inadequate preparation and support from the placement agency are more likely to struggle with it.  Also, it seems that many adoptive parents assume RAD is to blame when the normal process of attachment is longer or more difficult than they bargained for.   But research suggests that there is at least a genetic component to the predisposition to RAD.  This is the scary part!  You can do everything right and still end up with a nightmare situation.  Success stories are few, and one out of every five adoptions is disrupted.

The Mayo Clinic recommends parental preparation, therapy, and possibly drugs to help children with attachment issues.  They warn against radical, unproven and coercive "therapies".  For example, in the context of proper attachment therapy, the adoptive parents are the only source of anything during the initial bonding period: Food, drink, affection, assistance with daily tasks, etc.  On the other hand, some take this to an extreme of "holding therapy", where the child is forced into submission by coerced physical contact.

Seems to me like this is just another one of the ways that hurt children are hurting.  Some are malnourished.  Some are long-term non-verbal.  And some resist attachment.  As in all aspects of child-rearing, I think it is paramount to consider the child's needs first.  What does this behavior mean?  Just that the child is hurting. S/he needs that hurt validated, and the need behind it fulfilled.  This may take longer, and may require more professional assistance, but I think that a child-based approach has the best chance of producing positive results.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Torah Connection - Emor

This week we learn about the specific right and responsibilities accorded to the Kohanim (Priests).  They have no land-ownership in Israel, but are guaranteed a livelihood from the Temple offerings.  They are set on a pedestal, but are obliged to hold themselves up to a higher standard than the rest of the populace - there are restrictions on whom they may marry, as well as whose funerals they may attend.

There is a section near the beginning of the parsha, however, which is somewhat disturbing from a Special Needs perspective:

16 The Lord spoke further to Moses: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. 18 No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; 19 no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 20 or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. 21 No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord's offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; 23 but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.
Why are people with disabilities excluded from the holiest task of the Temple service?  Yes, they are included in most aspects of Temple life, but why is their presence considered "profane"?

I searched and found a few sources that address this.  Here is what seemed to me the best formulation of rabbinical thought on this:
While the exclusion of disabled kohanim from offering korbanot is Biblical, the rabbinic parallel is the exclusion of disabled kohanim from doing birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing, also known as duchening). Here, though, there's an interesting exception which we might be able to apply to the Biblical case as well. As formulated in the Shulchan Arukh, the rule is that a kohen who has a glaring problem with his face or hands is not allowed to do birkat kohanim, because people will stare at him; however, if he is a local resident and everyone is used to him, he is allowed.<14>
The point is made that this is a concession to prejudice:  Since we live in a society where the disabled are viewed as "different", the difference would detract from their ability to effectively represent the people in the public sphere.  Hence their exclusion from the highly visible role of serving around the Holy of Holies, but not from other tasks, wherein they are equal to any other Kohanim.  

This is not really a satisfying explanation, but it was the best I could find.... However, then I noticed a glaring exclusion from the list of disabilities.  Where in other contexts blindness and deafness are mentioned together (c.f. last week's Parshat Kedoshim, where we are admonished "You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind."), here only the blind are mentioned.  Why are the deaf not excluded?

I could not find any sources which address, or even acknowledge this discrepancy.  I wonder if the issue is that the deaf would not be visibly different, while the blind would navigate their environment more tentatively, thus betraying their disability? Or perhaps a different explanation? 

Any ideas???

Thursday, April 25, 2013

How busy is too busy?

On Tuesday I wrote my theory on family planning.    But I think there is something else, something that goes beyond how many children you have.  I know parents of only children, and even childless people, who are waaaay busier than me.  WAAAAAYYYYY more stressed.  Heck, I have a friend who just posted on Facebook that she is "too busy to floss".   She has one preteen child.  So clearly number of children is not the only factor in determining one's busy-ness.

I remember before I had children, being terribly busy.  I worked 60 hour weeks, and then I was involved in local politics the rest of the time.  When I had my first child, I thought I would return to work part-time after my maternity leave.  Fortunately, my company's idea of "part time" was 40 hours/week....  so I stayed home.  Over the past 19 years I went back and forth several times between working full-time, part-time, or SAHMing.  I know what busy with kids is, and I know what busy without kids is.  I also know what it feels like to goof off on whatever commitments I have, whether at home or in the workplace.

I have concluded that people make themselves as busy as they are comfortable with, regardless of how many children they have. People can raise many children with a laid-back attitude, or an only child and be busy with work, hobbies, etc up to the gills.

(As an aside: I find it curious indeed that people who think having another child would take time/attention away from my existing children would think nothing of it at all if I chose to take a full-time job. Trust me, a full-time job takes time/attention away from your kids a lot more than a new baby.  With a new baby, you have to multitask, and sometimes the older child has to wait his/her turn.  With a job, you are just not there.  As they get older, the kids occasionally grumble about their siblings being disruptive when they need my attention, but that is made up for by the times they spend together with each other.  As I have matured, I think that making the children wait for each other is actually a benefit in its own right.   The ability to delay gratification is a prime indicator of success in life.  How often do we undermine our children's ability to learn this by jumping at their beck and call?  Siblings provide an automatic mechanism for practicing patience.)

What do you think?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why bother?

Some people might think that I am "going through a phase".

Some people might hope that I am "going through a phase".

Some people might roll their eyes and wait for me to shut up so we can go back to talking about whatever they think is most pressing.  Sometimes they are right.  There are many real problems in the world, and they deserve our attention, and where appropriate, our actions.

I think that children allowed to die of neglect because of their disabilities is a problem that deserves our attention and actions.

Some people might ask, "Why bother?"

Here is one metaphor.

Two is the hardest

In my urban, mostly liberal community, most people have no more than 3 children.  My 5 make me something of an anomaly then.  I frequently get asked by young parents for my advice on whether they should have a second.  They are so overwhelmed with their only child, and can hardly imagine doubling the effort for a second.  Yet here I am with 5, and still have energy to pursue hobbies and other interests.

I always tell them, "Two is the hardest.  If you have a second, do yourself a favor, and keep going."

This is certainly baffling at first.  Why should two be harder than 3 or 4?  Yet that has been my experience, both among my peers as a mother and as a sibling.  I suspect that most families stop at two children because it is just SO HARD that they are scared silly of having any more.

My explanation for this phenomenon rests on two arguments.

First, from the parents' point of view.  When you have just one child, the parents outnumber the kid, and can control most facets of his/her life.  This is a ton of work, but if all you have is one egg, you put it in your basket, and you WATCH THAT BASKET.  Yeah, you might turn into a basket case, but the kid will be the stereotypical only child overachiever you always wanted.  Or else a spoiled brat.

When the second child comes along, most parents think they can still control most everything.  After all, we are big, they are little, and there's nothing they can do about it, right?  WRONG! The kids don't have jobs, housekeeping, or other worries of the world.  They can spend all their time driving you crazy, and still have time for legos, soccer practice and Saturday morning cartoons.  (Oops, I just dated myself -- who depends on network TV scheduling for their cartoon fix these days...?)

As soon as the third child arrives, most parents sensibly realize that they CANNOT control everything, so they stop trying -- how liberating!  The children will actually be OK!  I find that these days, I don't worry too much about everyday bumps or sniffles.  I make sure the kids are clothed and fed, are not killing each other, and have ample opportunity to develop their individual talents, and then I sit back and enjoy!  Is there more work? Of course.  I still need to get up at night for my youngest, and I need to budget my time to make sure everyone's needs are met.  But in a way, dealing with the wide range of issues from toddler to adolescent is less stressful than being obsessed about just one or two.  More interesting! 

The second argument is from the kids' point of view.  I am the younger of 2 siblings myself.  When there are only two, there is only one outlet for all the sibling emotions, both positive and negative.  As soon as my third was born, it was like an extra pressure valve.  Now my children take turns ganging up on each other, so they all get to see each other's good and bad sides and develop much closer relationships.

What do you think?

*Note: These are generalities!  Of course there are exceptions to everything I said here......

Israeli Independence Day

Between being away, and the Marathon Bombing taking over our consciousness, I missed recognizing Yom HaAtzmaut.  Of course, with the bombing suspects' Al Qaeda associations, the coincidence may not have been so coincidental....

Israel is now 65 years old.  It has gone from underdog to a military and economic force to be reckoned with. It has gone from an agricultural, socialist backwaters of the receding British Empire to a thriving free market economy, at the forefront of high tech, medicine, culture and human rights.

I love Israel.

Happy Birthday!!!!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Torah Connection - Achrei Mot/Kedoshim

Another double parsha, including topics ranging from hunting to incest.  Since we are in the 3rd triennial, this year the reading is entirely from Kedoshim.

The parsha begins:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.
3 You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your God.
4 Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I the Lord am your God.
5 When you sacrifice an offering of well-being to the Lord, sacrifice it so that it may be accepted on your behalf. 6 It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire. 7 If it should be eaten on the third day, it is an offensive thing, it will not be acceptable. 8 And he who eats of it shall bear his guilt, for he has profaned what is sacred to the Lord; that person shall be cut off from his kin.
9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.
11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. 12 You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.
14 You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. 16 Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord.
17 You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.
What a hodge-podge!  Let's see, we have prohibitions against theft and fraud; exhortations to honor parents and observe the Sabath; prescriptions for proper sacrifices; and specific rules on living the moral life:
14 You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.15 You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. 16 Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord.17 You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. 
All of which are elaborations on "Love your fellow as yourself."  As Rabbi Hillel is famous for saying, that is the whole of Torah, the rest is but commentary.  No go study the commentary!.

As we can see, the specific ways in which we are to "love our fellow as ourselves" are actually highly relevant to today!

1. You shall not insult the deaf - refrain from hate speech/bullying
2. ...or place a stumbling block before the blind - promote accessibility! Whether in the form of wheelchair ramps or access to an education, removing obstacles from the path of those who are impaired is the idea.
3. You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly - clearly an injunction against prejudice, with an understanding that reverse discrimination (favoring the poor) is just as repugnant as the more ordinary kind (honoring the rich).
4. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow - not only physical exploitation, but also emotional abuse, by embarrassment and rumor-mongering.
5. You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart - seems to pave the way for "loving our fellow", followed up by the more concrete "You shall not take vengeance of bear a grudge against your countrymen".

Yes, "loving our fellow as ourselves" means treating others as we would want to be treated:  If we were disabled, we would still seek to participate in society in whatever manner we could, and removing obstacles to this would ultimately benefit both helper and helpee. If we are brought before a judge, we would want him/her to rule based on the merits of the case, not based on our own wealth or need.                                    

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Tragedy

My best friend was almost right next door to where the 2nd bomb went off.  They went into the store next door, but decided it was too crowded and went to StarBucks just minutes before the blast.  So they are fine, but all shook up. I have several acquaintances who were running or spectating, but were nowhere near the finish line yet.  My immediate family is all on vacation!  So we are ok.

So far, 2 dead, one of whom is an 8-year-old boy. And local hospitals are overwhelmed with about 100 injuries, including many lost limbs.  Imagine running a marathon, only to lose a leg at the finish line.....

Pray for the dead and injured, for the bereaved families, and for anyone else who was affected by this tragedy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Torah Connection - Tazria/Metzora

Ah, the "Skin Disease Parsha", just what every Bar/Bat Mitzvah kid dreads!

Tzara'at, normally translated as leprosy, was understood by rabbinical scholars as a spiritual rather than physical affliction.  Specifically, it was said to be a divine punishment for "lashon hara" - gossip, or badmouthing others.

This seems strange.  Why would these intelligent leaders claim something that was so easily disproven?  How many people are relentless gossips, spreading vicious rumors about everyone, with nary a pimple to show for it?  How many children fall victim to rashes and other diseases of all sorts who have not even had the chance to talk yet, much less talk evil?

It occurred to me that this might be an ancient formulation of "I am rubber, you are glue, what you say bounces off me and sticks to you."   People frequently talk disparagingly of those who look different from them. Those who are... ugly.  Is this a way of saying, "That which you say about them, will befall you"?  What does this say about people who call others "R******"?

The cures for the various afflictions generally involve washing and quarantine, generally reasonable medical approaches before the advent of modern medicine.   So contrary to the gossips' hype, the afflicted people should actually be treated with compassion, helped to heal without causing epidemics, and then welcomed back to the community.

This brings us to Metzora, the second parsha covered in this week's combined reading.  Here we learn about the various offerings that the "leper" must bring upon recovery, as well as the prescriptions for both men's and women's reproductive discharges.  Again, washing and quarantine - from a day to a month - are prescribed.    So just being a man or a woman can bring on the kind of impurity that is akin to leprosy.  Many modern people see the female side of this - the laws of Niddah - as being somehow misogynistic.  Reading the text as a whole, though, shows that men and women have parallel requirements, and in fact, the men's rules are given first.  In light of the discussion above about leprosy, what does this suggest about the way men and women should view each other?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why is it so personal?

Most people who get involved in this area have some kind of natural connection to it -- either they grew up with someone with Down syndrome (or another disability), or they have a child with the condition.  This pushes them to advocate for others with special needs, possibly even to the point of adopting additional child(ren) with similar needs.

But I don't fit either of these categories.  I started this journey last year without having any direct personal experience with anyone with Down syndrome.  I have known a few people in my community with various levels of Cerebral Palsy, but that definitely was not what inspired me.

But the things that inspired me should not have made it so personal either.  I became aware of Down syndrome during the 2008 presidential campaign (Trigg Palin), which was coincidentally when I was pregnant with my 4th child at age 39.  The possibility of my unborn baby having a genetic defect was real, and I had to consider how I would handle it.  I decided then that I would not terminate the pregnancy unless there was a truly devastating condition, incompatible with life and/or causing extreme pain and suffering to the child.  However, I was definitely relieved when the results were negative.  During that same general time-frame, my older kids were into the show "Glee", which of course does a great job of portraying characters with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

But although these things inspired me, and made me research Down syndrome more, they are not what truly makes this personal for me.  That would not have made me fall apart in tears when I read stories - both happy and sad - about people with Down syndrome.

So why?

A couple of weeks ago I thought of an answer to that question that feels right to me.

I have one sibling, an older brother who is intellectually as far above the curve as a person with Down syndrome is below it.  Growing up with him, no matter how bright I was - reading early, doing well in school, etc. - I felt hopelessly behind.  My parents did their best to compensate for this, celebrating all my accomplishments and recognizing those areas where I excelled.  But the reality of my life as I experienced it was that I was deficient.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Should the value of my life be measured by how well I can compete with a genius?  Of course not!  So why should the value of people who develop slower than average be measured by how well they can keep up with typical developmental charts?  It took me many years to truly get that out of my system.  Even as an adult, when I was staying home with 3 young children, I felt acutely aware of being less educated than my peers.  I had "only" a Bachelor's degree (from an Ivy League college...) while they all seemed to have or be working on Master's and Ph.D.'s.  That was when I went back to college myself for my teaching degree.  Not so much driven by the degree itself but by the social marker that it signified.    Even in my 30's, I was measuring myself against others, and judging myself deficient.

These days, I refuse to go there!  Just yesterday I was idly perusing craigslist for teaching jobs.  I saw something that seemed mildly appealing.  Then I said, No, that's not what I want!  I love being able to stay home with my children.  I love having the time to explore hobbies, either with them (through homeschooling) or independently.  I love having the time to work with my older children on homework, or join them on school field trips.  I love having a handful of private tutoring students to keep up with my professional skills, but I do NOT want my time to belong to someone else, just for the social cachet of a full-time job.  I will not be defined by someone else's standards.

And neither should anyone else.

This is personal.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More on Holocaust Remembrance Day

My taller and fuzzier half sent me this on Sunday, and I foolishly did not get around to looking at it.

It is a powerful testament to the power of the human spirit, and the extent to which it is capable of experiencing joy in the face of the worst deprivation and degradation.

What are we to take from this? Is it just a dramatic history lesson?

Jews and homosexuals have not been herded into concentration and extermination camps in seven decades.  But the mentality that Nazi policies fostered has yet to be fully extinguished.  The handicapped were among the first groups to be targeted for rounding up, as it was easy to justify as "mercy killing".  The notion that people with disabilities are somehow "better off" dead persists, whether as a rationale for abortion or for the continued institutionalization of people with disabilities in places where they fare only marginally better than in the Nazi camps themselves.  Furthermore, the anti-Gypsy prejudice is evident in these institutions, as well, in the outright abuse that people of Roma heritage are subjected to in these places.  Reading stories of children, both with and without disabilities, who have been adopted out of these conditions, shows a similar testament to human resiliency.  Today, as at other times in history, people yearn for freedom, love, and joy, no matter what their circumstances.

When will this legacy of evil finally end?!


I know Pesach (Passover) is over, but.....

If I can help people with disabilities reach their potential and celebrate success - Dayenu!

If I can help people around me to see people with disabilities without prejudice - Dayenu!

If I can help expectant mothers to see an unborn child with disabilities as unlimited potential, just like any other child, and not give up on it as a statistic - Dayenu!

If I can help people around me learn about places in the world which are still stuck in the past, and where people with disabilities fare so much worse than here - Dayenu!

If I can motivate people to take action to improve conditions for people with disabilities, both here and abroad - Dayenu!

If I can create space within my community to help families who need extra support, either due to a child with disabilities, or a medical emergency, or job loss, or divorce, or adoption/new baby struggles, so families don't have to struggle in isolation - Dayenu!

If, in the context of such a space, I can help create structures which make adoption - even adoption of a child with special needs - more accessible and less scary - Dayenu!

If I can further encourage people in my community to see such an adoption as a potential benefit to their families, not just a sacrifice and a risk - Dayenu!

If my community can become a place where these acts are seen as normal, so that they spread to more communities, and create ripples of acceptance and opportunities - Dayenu!

If we can create an ever-expanding community where individuals are judged not by the color of their skin, or by any other aspect of their physical being, but by the content of their character - Dayenu!

Sunday, April 7, 2013











How often has our revulsion of physical attributes - some of which are purely subjective - prevented us from stepping up against evil that was perpetrated upon another human being?

How many people were reluctant to rise to the aid of Jews, Gypsies and others who were being exterminated in the Holocaust because on some level they found these people as unappealing as the Nazis themselves did?

To what extent did the story of Ethan Saylor get written as it did because all involved - the theater personnel, the cops, the by-standers, and the grand jurors - did not see an overweight, intellectually disabled man as fully human?

"Not our kids"

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Jews (as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and people with disabilities) were slaughtered wholesale while around the world people watched, either not believing or not caring.

Boatloads of refugees were turned away from England and the United States.  "These people are not our problem!"

Martin Niemoller has been often quoted (and misquoted):

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Disavowing responsibility for the perceived "Other", whether fellow countrymen "You are a Jew, so you are no longer a real German!" or just fellow human beings "Your country is messed up, that's your problem, not mine!" was a major factor that allowed this atrocity to be perpetrated.

Are we not responsible for acting on behalf of children just because they are not "ours"?

If "our child" was trapped in an institution where he was confined to a crib until he forgot how to walk or talk, and began banging his head and chewing his hands out of boredom, we would not consider it "too difficult" to do whatever it takes to help him heal.  Why then is it "too much work" to take on to rescue a child to whom we are not genetically related?

Not our problem?  If not us, then who? And if not now, when?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Torah Connection - Sh'mini

We now return to our usual scheduled Torah programming.  Today's reading includes 3 seemingly unrelated topics.  First, Aaron follows Moses' directions to prepare for witnessing the Divine Presence:

 2 He said to Aaron: "Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and bring them before the Lord. 3And speak to the Israelites, saying: Take a he-goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish, for a burnt offering; 4 and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a meal offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you."

They are splendidly successful:

 23 Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

Then we switch gears to the story of Nadab and Abihu and their "unorthodox" sacrifice:

1 Now Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 
Aaron and his surviving sons Eleazar and Ithamar, as well as his cousins Mishael and Elzaphan, end up having to clean up the mess, both literally and figuratively.

These 2 stories seem somewhat related, as they contrast the "correct" sacrifice with the "wrongful" one, but then we totally switch gears to begin the discussion of the laws of Kashrut (dietary rules).  We get here the quick run-through of the various kinds of mammals, birds, fish and insects, and learn how to differentiate the kosher from the non-kosher.

Seems to me that this juxtaposition is not accidental at all!  Nadab and Abihu's sacrifice seemed reasonable, and was motivated by the best of intentions.  Yet it was not the prescribed ritual, and was therefore rejected.  Likewise, a non-kosher meal may be delicious and nutritious, but is nonetheless spiritually defiling.  In fact, the connection is suggested earlier, when G*d explains the rationale for the steps that must be taken after the transgression:
8 And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: 9 Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, 10 for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean11 and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.
Reading the process that Aaron and his clan had to go through to clean up gives insight into what is involved:

12 Moses spoke to Aaron and to his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar: Take the meal offering that is left over from the Lord's offerings by fire and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 You shall eat it in the sacred precinct, inasmuch as it is your due, and that of your children, from the Lord's offerings by fire; for so I have been commanded. 14 But the breast of elevation offering and the thigh of gift offering you, and your sons and daughters with you, may eat in any clean place, for they have been assigned as a due to you and your children from the Israelites' sacrifices of well-being. 15 Together with the fat of fire offering, they must present the thigh of gift offering and the breast of elevation offering, which are to be elevated as an elevation offering before the Lord, and which are to be your due and that of your children with you for all time — as the Lord has commanded.
16 Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, 17 "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. 18 Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." 19 And Aaron spoke to Moses, "See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?" 20 And when Moses heard this, he approved.

Reading these injunctions as though they are a response to an unkosher meal puts the whole thing in a different light.  Distinguishing the permitted from the forbidden is the common thread, taking that which has been assigned to you, and leaving that which was not, is an important precept.

Torah Connection - Pesach

During festivals, the usual cycle of reading the Torah is interrupted with a specific reading chosen for that holiday.  For Pesach (Passover), we read one of the sections describing the commandments relating to the observance of the holiday.

As it turns out, we have already read this section this year.

Friday, April 5, 2013


I recently came across a blog that had a fairly unique perspective on Down syndrome, especially how it is treated in Ukraine.

Gillian Marchenko was an American missionary living in Ukraine with her husband and 3 children.  When she gave birth to her 4th child in a Ukrainian hospital, she was told that her baby has Down syndrome.   She then experienced first hand as the medical staff encouraged her to relinquish the child to institutional care:

Russian mutterings swirled above me, “neecheevo, pearestine krechat,” –it’s nothing, stop crying. I once again found myself deaf and dumb. Dazed, I gulped down the thick liquid. Polly’s doctor stood closest to my head on the left side of the bed.
“Stop crying!” she said. “Yes, it’s terrible that your daughter has Down syndrome, but you have options. You can terminate your parenting rights or take her to live in the village. Take her some place quiet. She’ll play. Life is slow there. Now, stop crying!” Everyone around me nodded and patted me, muttering again, “neecheevo, Gillian, neechevo.” It’s nothing, Gillian, it’s nothing.
One can just imagine how such advice would be received by a local woman, who lacks the benefit of Gillian's cosmopolitan experience and American diversity - especially under the influence of the "thick liquid" she was given.

Fast forward 3 years, after the initial shock of the diagnosis had been replaced with optimism and advocacy for her lovely daughter with Down syndrome.  Gillian and her husband return to Ukraine to adopt another child with Down syndrome.   Now she experienced the flip-side of the "medical" advice she had received earlier:

“Why do you want a sick child? We have several other children who are much better than her, ” one woman said while Evangeline sat in my lap, her face covered in dried snot. Her legs crusty with dirt. “She is an imbecile,” the worker coolly glanced away as her words hit me like rocks.

Although the two girls are fairly close in age, and although the second child was adopted while still quite young, the difference in their development is striking, and persists even several years later.  Polly runs, dances, sings and plays.  She goes to school and is learning to read and write.  Evie is non-verbal, and is still struggling with basic structures of family living.  She has recently begun to make progress in communication using pictures.  Is this what Polly would have been like had she been left behind at birth? Conversely, what would Evie's life have looked like had she been spared orphanage life completely?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Workplace inclusion - and more!

I just came across this article at NADS.org. Wow!!! This guy hires 75% people with disabilities to operate his factory (both mental and physical disabilities). He is not doing it as part of any government or charity program, just networking with special education teachers and disability groups to place motivated people in positions where they can succeed.  And his profits and workplace morale have benefitted tremendously! He relates how early on he agreed to a 2-week trial, after which his existing employees said, “Why can’t we hire more people like this, who care, do their work with pride, and smile?”  

What a sterling example of the highest form of tzedakah!

Torah Connection - Tzav

I will cheat a bit.  For Parshat Tzav, I will shamelessly post my daughter's Dvar from her Bat-Mitzvah 2 weeks ago (leaving out any identifying details, of course).  I'm just that proud of her!

My parsha, Parshat Tzav, is about the various rituals that Aaron and his sons went through to become Kohanim, also known as priests.  It gives many specifics on what sacrifices were to be offered, when, and how. It tells the blessings that were said before the altar while the sacrifices were offered, and it goes with meticulous detail into what the Kohanim were to wear while helping people bring their sacrifices.
So I ask, why these particular clothes?  I think of these sacrifices as special meals for G*d.  When I go to a restaurant, I tell the waiter how I want my food.  If I am ordering steak, I tell them specifically that I would like it medium rare with extra salt.  I also would not appreciate it if the waiter was not being polite.  So I understand why G*d would want His offerings prepared a special way and why He would want the Kohanim to say specific things.  But I could not care less if my waiter was wearing a tux or a t-shirt under an apron.  So why does G*d care so much about what the Kohanim are wearing?!
So let’s see what these special clothes are. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Priest_(Judaism)#His_vestments):
The Kohen Gadol wore eight holy garments (bigdei kodesh). Of these, four were of the same type worn by all Kohanim, and four were unique to the Kohen Gadol.Those vestments which were common to all Kohanim, were:
Priestly undergarments (like breeches): linen pants reaching from the waist to the knees
a Priestly tunic: made of pure linen, covering the entire body from the neck to the feet, with sleeves reaching to the wrists. The one the Kohen Gadol  wore was embroidered, but the tunics the regular Kohanim wore were plain.
a Priestly sash: the one the Kohen Gadol wore was made of fine linen with embroidery in blue and purple and red; the sashes the other Kohanim wore were made of white, twined linen rope.
a Priestly turban: the Kohen Gadol’s was much larger than the turbans that the priests wore and wound so that it formed a broad, flat-topped turban; that for regular Kohanim was wound so that it formed a cone-shaped turban, called a migbahat.

The vestments that were unique to the Kohen Gadol were:
a Priestly robe: a sleeveless, blue robe, the lower hem of which was fringed with small golden bells alternating with pomegranate-shaped tassels in blue, purple, and red
the Ephod: a richly embroidered vest or apron with two onyx engraved gemstones on the shoulders, on which were engraved the names of the tribes of Israel
and the Priestly breastplate: with twelve gems, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes; a pouch in which he probably carried the Urim and Thummim. It was fastened to the EphodOn the front of the turban was a golden plate inscribed with the words: "Holiness unto G*d" was attached to the mitznefet.
Even after reading about the clothes that the Kohanim wore, nothing spoke to me. So I employed a technique I learned from my second grade teacher. I closed my eyes, and I didn’t just imagine the temple, I WENT to the temple. I carried my sacrifice up temple rock. All around me, men and women, boys and girls, rich and poor, of all different tribes, united as one as they, no as we, all came to Jerusalem to give our sacrifices to G*d at the temple. Some were driving cattle, while others carried no more than a small bag of flour, but we were still together in this. When we got to the top, there were the Kohanim, servants of the Lord, lead by the Kohen Gadol. The way they stood, humbly and majestically all at the same time, it moved me. The sun flashed over the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate, with a stone for each tribe, and I understood. When I left my daydream, I realised. The Kohanim, the temple, they were not waiters at a restaurant. The were Israel. Although we were all from different tribes, we went to the same temple, were served by the same Kohanim. The Kohanim unified us. They helped us to connect to G*d. Just as we were unified at the temple, so were the Kohanim. Outside the temple, without their clothes, they were just like us, part of the People of Israel. But when they donned their matching robes, they were so much more.
Nowadays we are so much more diverse than the 12 tribes.  We are literally spread across the globe, and we don’t have the Kohanim any more to unify us.  But in a way we still have the Temple.  The Temple was never just a building, just as the Kohanim were never just men. The Temple was a feeling, a movement. It was less the stones than the people and the rituals that were carried out within it.  When I went to the Western Wall in Israel a few years ago, I had that feeling.  The crowd of people were the movement, and became the ritual. Although our people were still as many and as diverse as the grains in the sand, I had a lingering sensation. A feeling that our people once were, and someday will be again, connected. United in Israel, all bringing sacrifices to the same temple, with help from the same, identically dressed Kohanim. That’s not to say that I want to go back to giving animal sacrifices. Things change, and I don’t believe that our society would ever want to go back to the old tradition of sacrificing our poor innocent animals. When we were first created, G*d gave us the garden of eden, where we lived in harmony with the other creatures of the earth, and we were all vegetarians. Today, instead of sacrifices, we sing prayers up to G*d. When the temple is rebuilt, I believe that all sacrifices will be either of the soil, or of our tongues. What matters isn’t WHAT we sacrifice, but how we sacrifice it.

Torah Connection - Vayikra

OK, so I am several weeks behind.  This is going to be tough.

Almost three weeks ago we started the book of Leviticus with Parshat Vayikra, wherein the various sacrifices are described.  Here is a good introduction into how these could possibly be relevant to us today.

A few highlights:

  • The Hebrew word for sacrifice - "korban" - literally means "coming closer".  The sacrifices were intended not primarily to take away from the people in a punitive fashion, but to provide a means for coming closer to the Divine.
  • Both rich and poor alike were expected to bring sacrifices "from each according to his ability".... a poor man's handful of flour was no less worthy than a rich man's bullock.
  • Kings and priests were expected to atone for their sins, just like everyone else.  There was no assumption of divinity or sinlessness for either political or spiritual leaders. Here was the origin of "equality before the law".
I noticed something in this analysis, though, that I want to expand on:

Never in Torah is there any notion of G-d "eating" a korban. They are called a "re'ach nikhoach," which could be translated "pleasing smell," but "re'ach" can mean a spiritual uplift as well. There is certainly no physical benefit or need fulfilled. The idea of a korban is that it is pleasing to G-d when we express a desire to make ourselves godly at the expense of our physicality. This can be expressed in our deeds, in our charity, and, yes, in the korbanos.

This reminded me of a conversation I had recently about Genesis, of all things.  It was concerning the names of Adam and Eve.  In Hebrew, Adam is not only the word for "man", but is related to the words for "earth" - "adama" and "red" - "adom".  It is therefore a name rich in symbolism, highlighting man's connection to the earth from which he was fashioned.  Eve's name - "Chava" - doesn't seem to connect to anything, but is explained as being "Mother of all life".  It has been suggested that a transcription error may have changed Chaya (Chet-Yud-Heh) to Chava (Chet-Vav-Heh).

It seems to me that this could have been a similar slip, or at least a biblical pun.  The word for "spirit" is "Ru'ach" (Reish-Vav-Chet), while "smell" is "Re'ach" (Reish-Yud-Chet).  Thinking of it this way paves the way to seeing the appropriateness of substituting prayer (spiritual offerings) for animal sacrifices (yummy bbq odor...).

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