When I was a kid, the most difficult and awkward conversation between parents and children was the talk about “the birds and the bees.” Due to the Internet, increasingly graphic pop culture and explicit billboards and ads, today’s children can be considered precocious in this area and likely know a great deal about the topic before “the talk” ever even occurs.
Instead, the most difficult talk today between parents and children is one that is unfortunately not taking place enough. While the world is generally a safe place and the people our children are exposed to are almost always appropriate and safe, sadly the threat of abuse is real. Research has consistently shown that the most important and effective tool to protect our children is education. As loving and trusted parents, we have the capacity to safeguard our children, but it means having a difficult and uncomfortable conversation.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a respected voice on the topic of child safety education, identifies four points to communicate to our children in order to empower them to protect themselves and to transform them into difficult targets for predators.
- No secrets from parents – In a non-anxious, calm conversation we must remind our children that we love them beyond words and that they can feel confident confiding in us about absolutely anything. We must make them recognize that we take them seriously, we will honor their concerns and fears, and we will always do everything in our power to serve their best interests.
- Your body belongs to you – It is crucial for children to understand the concept of personal space and that our bodies belong to us, and us alone. Our private parts are ours and absolutely nobody, not a friend, family member, or person in any position of authority can have access to them.
- Good touch/bad touch – Not every touch is bad and qualifies as abuse. However, there is touch that is categorically wrong and should set off an alarm for our children. They must understand the difference so that they can be aware and respond appropriately.
- No one should make you feel uncomfortable – Lastly, we must communicate to our children that no one should make them feel uncomfortable. If they do, they have a right to walk away and tell someone they trust.
Too many parents are avoiding this talk because they think they will introduce their children to a topic that will make them fear adults and worry excessively. However, the experts explain that rather than fear adults, children will feel safer knowing they can trust their parents and they will feel empowered to protect themselves going forward. While it is never comfortable to broach this subject, good opportunities for bringing it up can be bath times for young children, clothes shopping for older children, or at the time of a doctor’s appointment.
Should God forbid an issue arise, the best way to respond to our children is to tell them that we believe them and that we will react swiftly and appropriately. Halacha (Jewish law) is clear that safety concerns must be reported to the appropriate authorities and all mandated reporting laws must be observed. Remaining silent, covering up, or excusing inexcusable behavior leaves other children vulnerable to abuse and trauma that will haunt them their entire lives and do what can be irreparable damage.
With our children off from school, many of them heading off to camp and others having more leisure time roaming the neighborhood, there is no better time to rededicate ourselves to best practices for safety for our family and community in general.
Review stranger danger. Have proper and working smoke detectors & carbon monoxide detectors in appropriate locations (If anyone cannot afford them, please contact me). Lock the doors to your car and home, no matter how safe you feel. Make sure your pool fence is sturdy and closed. Don’t let children swim unsupervised or alone. Be vigilant with reviewing with your children where they are going, what they are doing, who is driving them, who else will be there, what movie they are seeing, etc.
May our children remain safe and may Hashem grant us the courage and strength to be vigilant in protecting them.
Five years ago, I was in a store when an eight-year-old boy from our community saw me, came over, and said one word: “Rabbi.” The encounter not seeming all that unusual, I didn’t think anything of it until later that evening when the boy’s mother texted me to say that I had witnessed a miracle. I honestly didn’t know what she was referring to until she explained. She had heard about her son coming over to me and saying “rabbi” and she wanted me to appreciate that in fact, while that simple gesture would be unremarkable and ordinary for almost every boy his age, the fact that her son recognized me and called me rabbi was nothing short of miraculous.
That boy was Joe Greenbaum and he is autistic. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often includes social impairment, challenges with communication, and repetitive patterns of behavior. On top of that, Joe also has a form of apraxia, an uncommon speech disorder in which the brain struggles to develop plans for speech and as a result has difficulty making accurate movements when speaking.
The combination of autism and a form of apraxia meant that for Joe, learning to speak and communicate would be nearly impossible. And yet, through incredible tenacity on his part, and with the boundless love, encouragement, and support of his family, at eight years old, Joe successfully learned how to speak. When he said the word “Rabbi” that day, what would have been for almost anyone else utterly unmemorable and insignificant, was in fact for Joe and his family an absolute miracle.
Interacting with Joe, it is clear that he understands that there is a world around him that he is connected to, but yet not fully part of. He desperately wants full access and full interaction, but his primitive receptive language skills simply hold him back and deny him that full access.
While at times it can be hard to fully know what Joe is thinking or feeling, there are times when it is clear what he loves and cherishes. At the top of that list are his beloved family members, who have shown incredible devotion, dedication, patience, love, and care to him and his siblings, including two others with autism, throughout his life. In a close second place is Joe’s love for Judaism. Since his early childhood he has been drawn to the sound of the Shofar, enjoys listening to Jewish music (Shlock Rock in particular), loves coming to Shul and kissing the Torah, and most recently puts on his Tefillin with more enthusiasm and excitement than most Bar Mitzvah boys.
This coming Shabbos is Joe’s Bar Mitzvah. While other parents struggle to choose a venue for the party, select a caterer, narrow down the invite list, and finalize a menu, for the last few years, Joe’s parents were struggling with the question of if—and how—he would have a Bar Mitzvah altogether. It is hard enough for an autistic child with apraxia to learn one language, but to read and speak a second is practically unthinkable and unimaginable.
And yet, rather than be fatalistic or resigned to their son not being a candidate for a public Bar Mitzvah, Joe’s parents chose to imagine, to envision, to dream, and ultimately to make the impossible possible. With the help of Dr. Harold Landa as a Bar Mitzvah teacher, and Joe’s Aunt Nina, who worked tirelessly to help him learn Hebrew, they set a goal of Joe receiving an aliyah on the Shabbos of his Bar Mitzvah. Almost everyone around this devoted group told them it was impossible, unattainable, and an unrealistic and perhaps even unfair expectation to set, as receiving an aliyah involves the recitation of two berachos on the Torah. Nevertheless, with the support of Joe’s team, which includes his amazing grandparents, incredible therapists, as well as Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger and Rabbi Matan Wexler, Joe’s parents defiantly shut out the voices of negativity and of defeatism and tenaciously persisted towards the goal of Joe learning how to receive an aliyah and recite the berachos on the Torah.
The next piece of the puzzle was Joe’s cooperation. An autistic young man will typically not do something that he doesn’t want to do. Over the last few months, Joe not only cooperated in the pursuit of his parents’ goal, but he has far surpassed it. With God’s help, this young man, who did not learn to speak until he was eight years old, will not only receive an aliyah this coming Shabbos, but will lain the maftir aliya as well. Having had the opportunity to watch Joe practice, kiss the Torah, say the first beracha, recite the laining, and articulate the second beracha like any other Bar Mitzvah boy was to literally witness a miracle before our very eyes.
There is so much for us to learn from this extraordinary family and their outstanding son. Firstly, as the Chida famously taught, “Ein davar ha’omeid bifnei haratzon — nothing stands in the way of will.” Joe has worked relentlessly overcoming all odds to be able to achieve what almost all of us take absolutely for granted. He has taught us that if we dedicate ourselves to achieving a dream, we can make the impossible a reality.
Assuming he performs smoothly on Shabbos morning—and even if he doesn’t—this accomplishment for Joe far surpasses almost anything any of us have done far beyond the age of thirteen. The Chazon Ish and the Steipler Gaon stood up in honor of special children as they entered a room. While others saw children with special needs labeled by society as disabled or even handicapped, these Torah giants saw only special souls capable of extraordinary things whose lives brought out the best of those around them.
Joe’s team has taught us to never stop believing in every single child, no matter his or her limitations. They have modeled how to never stop dreaming or setting the bar high, even when others tell you it is impossible, unrealistic, and unachievable. They have taught us how to persevere, despite being physically and spiritually tired, how to keep going, even when at times you desperately want to give up. They regularly remind us how to be grateful for the things that almost all others take for granted.
And now, this coming Shabbos, there is one last piece of the puzzle necessary to complete the picture for Joe and his family: the role played by us, his community and Shul. Enabling Joe and anyone like him to experience his Bar Mitzvah is not only the responsibility of his family, but is a duty of our entire community. Facilitating a Bar Mitzvah for an autistic young man requires patience, flexibility, and cooperation. We adults can learn from Joe’s classmates who just completed 7th grade at Hillel Day School. They, too, are part of his loving team and regularly make accommodations to enable his participation.
While I have highlighted Joe’s story here, it should not be lost on us that Joe is not the only one in our community with special needs. Every special needs child and their families deserve our unwavering support, love, patience, inclusiveness, and, when necessary, accommodations. Raising special children requires superhuman strength and sacrifices that are beyond our imagination. Lessening their challenges, being supportive and encouraging, are not extra acts of chessed. It is our responsibility, duty, and obligation to fill in our piece of the puzzle.
If you don’t believe in miracles, I implore you to come to BRS this Shabbos and please God see one for yourself.
Disney World’s slogan is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Perhaps the greatest part about the Magic of Disney is not the souvenirs, the rides, the characters, or even the memories. To me, the most magical part of Disney is simply how nice everyone is to one another and how happy everyone seems.
It is hard to think of another place where such a large quantity of people all seem so courteous, kind, pleasant, and polite. Generally speaking, one doesn’t find pushing or shoving, short tempers, a culture of criticism, or impolite and impatient people at Disney, despite having to wait on lines, pay large fees, endure the hot sun, and spend hours on one’s feet.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if our Shuls and Jewish communities could be more like Disney? Wouldn’t it simply be incredible if Orthodox synagogues and communities were known as the happiest places on Earth, and that guests to our buildings couldn’t wait to come back and to visit as often as they could?
How does Disney do it and what could we learn for creating a culture of happiness? A few years ago, I had the privilege of participating in a behind-the-scenes tour of Disney arranged by Yeshiva University. The design and layouts of the parks, the placement of vendors, and the timing of the shows are all meticulously and brilliantly strategized and arranged. But what struck me most was the employee culture and how the attitude of the Disney’s tens of thousands of workers impacts each and every one of their guests.
In every employee only area, there are signs listing the Disney credo. It includes: “I project a positive image and energy. I am courteous and respectful to all guests including children. I go above and beyond.” Disney understands a fundamental psychological principle supported by extensive research – happiness is contagious. Just as if one person yawns others will follow suit, so too, if a person smiles, others around him will start smiling as well. A happy disposition, a positive spirit, and a pleasant countenance are simply contagious.
Whose responsibility is it to spread the smiles? Whose job is it to maintain the happiness effect? There are roughly 60,000 employees at Disney World in Orlando. All members of the staff, from custodial and maintenance, to the ride operators and people who wear the Mickey costumes, are referred to as “cast members.” How many of the 60,000 cast members do you think are responsible for picking up the garbage? The answer is all 60,000. How many are responsible for helping someone find directions or return a lost child to their parents? 60,000. How many are required to smile and spread the happiness? That’s right, all 60,000. At Disney, the cast members know that they each have different tasks, but they are taught that they all have the same purpose: spreading happiness.
Disney has a regular contest among the employees to identify and reward “great service fanatics.” These individuals are nominated by their peers and are celebrated for going above and beyond in being kind, helpful, and spreading happiness.
“Vayehi ha’am k’misonenim rah b’aznei Hashem.” Our parsha describes Moshe’s harsh reaction and response to the complaints of the people. Misonenim is the hitpa’eil form of the verb, which means reflexive or done to oneself. The Torah does not describe good people with legitimate complaints. Rather, Moshe is so strong because he observes that they had transformed themselves into complainers and that was not tolerable.
How do we go from a culture of complaining to creating the happiest place on Earth? The answer, I submit, is to tap into Disney’s magic and to promote a mandate in which every single Jew is a member of ‘the cast.’ If we want to be a place that attracts and inspires non-observant and disaffected Jews, we ALL need to be leaders in making happiness contagious in our environs.
In our Shul and community, like in every other one, we all have different tasks. Some are Jewish communal professionals; others are lay leaders. Some are working and some are retired. Some are professionals, while others own businesses, and others are stay at home Moms and Dads. But, while we all have different tasks, we need to see ourselves as sharing the same purpose if we are going to change a culture.
Like Disney we must reward and celebrate those that provide service with a smile and go above and beyond. It isn’t enough to highlight and commend those that excel in learning or in piety. We must reward the “great service fanatics,” among our adults and children who excel at being nice, kind, and thoughtful, and who smile contagiously.
Let’s taste the sweetness of life, make an effort to always have a smile, and be active members of the Jewish people’s cast, thereby converting our Shuls and communities to the happiest places on Earth.
When I was a young rabbi and I first encountered someone with depression, I vividly remember thinking to myself, why can’t he just snap out of it? What does he mean when he says he sleeps most of the day and can’t concentrate on anything? We are all tired and dealing with stress. Just resolve to get out of bed and get going. I remember not being able to understand why he was so depressed. After all, by all measures, his life was pretty good. If he were to just focus on the blessings and simply choose to be positive, he wouldn’t be depressed at all.
Looking back, I am incredibly grateful that I didn’t articulate any of these sentiments to him, but nevertheless, I feel ashamed and even guilty for having been so ignorant and insensitive to what depression is all about.
We perpetrate a terrible disservice by using the exact same word to describe how we feel when our favorite team gets knocked out of the playoffs or when our cell phone breaks, and a chemical, clinical illness that can be debilitating and incapacitating. Clinical depression is not about feeling blue, or down in the dumps or terribly sad. It is a serious illness that can be the result of a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.
Over 800 years ago, Rabbeinu Yonah wrote: “Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness in that it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world, nevertheless, one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly.” The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) tells us about an evil spirit that is so dangerous it can be lethal and therefore, one can extinguish a candle on Shabbos to calm it. The Rambam (commentary on the Mishnah) explains, “The Evil Spirit is referring to melancholy. There is a type of melancholy that will cause the ill person to lose his mind when he sees light or when he is amongst other people. He finds peace only in darkness, in solitude, and in desolate places.”
Depression is no more the fault of the person suffering with it than cancer or Alzheimer’s are the fault of someone suffering with one of those conditions. Just as the patient with cancer cannot simply will his or her cancer away and the individual with Alzheimer’s cannot simply determine to stop forgetting, the person with depression cannot just decide to not feel anxious, worthless, or exhausted. It is terribly unfortunate and unacceptable that depression remains stigmatized even today. Having a physical illness can be awkward, but should not be a source of embarrassment or guilt. Similarly, having depression, equally out of one’s control, should not be a source of shame or inadequacy.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of depression like decreased appetite, inability to sleep or excessive sleeping, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or thoughts of death, I urge you to seek support. If you recently had a baby and despite the newfound blessing you just can’t get yourself out of your rut, you may be suffering from postpartum depression. You are not the first person to experience this, and you have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the BRS Rabbis, Rebbetzins or our wonderful Social Worker and we will guide you to the resources and people that can help you without judgment.
Like any illness, depression requires diagnosis, intervention, and treatment. Like all illnesses it also requires the love, patience, understanding, and support of family and friends. However, for the most part, while people extend themselves remarkably to cook meals, shop for groceries, babysit children, or even just send a thoughtful text to check in on someone recovering from cancer or another physical condition, the person with depression or another mental health diseases often feels isolated, alone, neglected, and ignored.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a perfect time to educate ourselves. As we resolve to be more sensitive, please consider the following:
- Don’t use the term “depressed” unless it is clinically appropriate. Find another way to say you are sad, bummed out, disappointed or feeling blue. Saying you are depressed over a relatively minor issue minimizes the suffering of someone struggling with true depression.
- When someone you know is acting differently or unusual, don’t judge them or jump to assumptions about them. Ethics of the Fathers (2:4) quotes Hillel who said: “Do not judge another until you have stood in his place.” Since it is impossible to stand in another person’s place, to be them, to have their baggage or to live their struggles, we can never judge another. Instead, we should be kind, sensitive, supportive and understanding of everyone around us.
- Never assume you know everything going on in someone’s life or what motivates his or her behavior. Ian Maclaren, the 19th-century Scottish author once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Cut others slack; give people the benefit of the doubt.
- When you know a friend or family member has depression or other mental illness such as bi-polar, anxiety disorder, etc., be as supportive as you would be with someone suffering with a physical illness or disability. Offer help and assistance, check in, and let them know you are just thinking of them. Unlike acute illnesses, most of the time, depression is chronic. Once diagnosed, it can be controlled, lessened, or perhaps, even go into “remission.” But it is never cured. Support will be needed in some form always.
- When reaching out to someone with depression, never judge, criticize or make comparisons. Don’t offer advice or minimize the person’s suffering. Simply listen, be present, and be a friend.
- When someone has depression it places a tremendous burden on other members of the family who often need to take over chores, responsibilities and even produce greater income. Go out of your way to be inclusive of them, to check in on them and seek to unburden them.
In 2001, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot courageously wrote publicly about his own experiences with depression. He concluded his article with a call that unfortunately remains as relevant today, fourteen years later:
“It is long past time for us all to break the silence and speak openly about mental illness, not just at conferences of Orthodox mental health professionals, but in the public forums of our schools and yeshivot, our conventions and fora, and in the pages of our newspapers and publications. In much of our frum world, despite the fact that significant progress has been made, the vestiges of these stigmas linger on. It is time for this last stigma to fall and fall quickly in the spirit of menshlichkeit, rachmanut, and the recognition that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim.”