I am twenty years old and I studied in Israel this past school year. Judaism is a very important part of my life and I am confident that that will be the case, Bezrat Hashem, for the rest of my life. I am a ba’al teshuvah and throughout the past few years, I have been consistently increasing my Jewish dedication. I have succeeded in accomplishing a lot of my goals for which I am very grateful to Hashem.
In my early childhood, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome which is on the autistic spectrum. Hashem has given me perhaps more challenges than many other people. Hashem has also given me the commitment to overcome a lot of my challenges. I have also been able to use the confidence that I have gained as a result of my challenges to help others to overcome their own challenges. I have had the opportunity to mentor people with special needs in the Jewish community and that has been a very rewarding experience.
I became a ba’al teshuvah when I was in seventh grade. I genuinely appreciated religious observances and wanted to learn more. Also, I liked people on a one-on-one basis in religious communities and I felt that they did their best to reach out to me and to encourage me. I have also offered advice to people who are interested in becoming more religious. I appreciate the experiences that I have had which helps me to do that.
I decided that the next step in my journey was to attend a Jewish school. For high school, I attended the Sulam program, a special education program housed in the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Rockville, Maryland. I had great experiences. One of my most special experiences not only in high school but of my whole life so far, took place in November 2010 when I went to Israel with my high school for a ten day trip. That was my first trip to Eretz Yisrael. I deepened my connection to the Land of Israel and being in Israel with my friends helped to deepen my friendships.
My experiences on that trip to Israel helped to make me into the person that I am today.
I am confident that many of my friends from high school will be good friends for the rest of my life, Bezrat Hashem. In Israel, I studied at Yeshivat Darkaynu, a special education program that is housed on the grounds of Yeshivat Har Etzion in a Yishuv in Gush Etzion called Alon Shvut. In Israel, I also established many new friendships and I had the opportunity to continue to strengthen friendships from high school.
While I was in high school, I began thinking about how teenagers can help to give support to teenagers with special needs. Some of my thoughts on that topic are below:
1. It is important to do one’s very best to show that you genuinely respect a person with special needs. One should take full advantage of opportunities to offer encouragement. That could make an important difference in the lives of people with special needs. In the future, if one is unsure about whether to pursue a specific goal or an objective, the individual might think, “My friends in school knew that I could do things like this. I am sure than I can do it!” In a school context, people could offer encouragement regarding one’s ability to do things such as receiving good grades, doing well on tests and submitting homework on time. When I was in high school, several of my friends offered me encouragement in those areas and that made a positive impact on me.
Indeed, the respect and encouragement that a person with special needs receives, especially when they are still in school, can be essential.
Additionally, if one is genuinely unsure about whether a student with special needs can do a specific activity, the best thing to do is to ask for the student’s honest opinion. That shows a high level of respect by communicating appreciation of the importance for all of us to make certain independent decisions about what works for us. Furthermore, an activity that might not be too difficult in one context might be too challenging in another context.
In a Jewish school, if one is experiencing difficulty in one’s Torah learning, others can explain to the student that the student is fully capable of learning Torah if one diligently and consistently shows perseverance and dedication. Throughout high school and while in Israel, it was very helpful to study with a chavruta. I learned a lot more about Judaism as a result of studying with a chavruta.
The respect and encouragement that a person with special needs receives, especially when they are still in school, can be essential.
2. I highly recommend doing one’s utmost to try to see events in life from the point of view of the individual that you’re speaking with. Empathy is a very important skill. Also, if a person with special needs appears to be behaving in a difficult manner, in my opinion, most often the person, through their behavior, is asking for friendship and extra support. In school, if a student is behaving in a disruptive manner in class, it might be a good idea to ask privately, after class, if there is anything that the student wants to talk about. It is important to show individual students that you want to help them do well. I have learned how speaking gently with people can positively affect somebody and can even change a person’s life in a very positive way.
One of Rabbi Hillel’s teachings, from Pirke Avot, “Don’t judge your fellowman until you are in his place….” is especially relevant with regards to empathy for others.
If one consistently works on developing empathy, it will be easier to notice when somebody needs extra support.
3. If it necessary to offer criticism, it is important to try to do so in a way that has minimum potential to hurt one’s feelings. Also, it is a good idea, if possible, to offer positive comments while also offering necessary criticism. One could say, “I think that there are many things that you do well. I would like to continue to seeyou do well. I think that you are a great person. There are certain behaviors which make it hard for people to see you as the good person that you are. I want other people to know you as the person that I know you to be.” In school, this could apply in an instance of a student not properly interacting with one’s peers. It also matters who offers necessary criticism. It is very much preferable if the person who gives necessary criticism is someone who the student very much trusts. That could be someone like a close friend, a counselor or a teacher. It is also important that necessary criticism be offered privately so as not to cause embarrassment.
I am looking forward to continuing to overcome challenges in my life and I am looking forward to continuing to help others to overcome their unique challenges.
I am optimistic about the rest of my journey. I have full confidence that, Bezrat Hashem, I will succeed.
Nathan Weissler is twenty years old and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He has been advocating for people with special needs for several years.