Inspiration

I Think I’m An Unlikely Inspiration, But It Seems to Work

February 12, 2014

As told to Batya Rosner

Andrea Levy race-web
Andrea Levy (front) during the Miami Half-Marathon with Team Yachad.
Photo Credit: David Weintraub

At some point in the past six months, I had a stunning revelation. When I began the process of going public with my training for the Miami Half-Marathon with Team Yachad, I thought my endeavor would earn me nervous laughs, skepticism, cautions and other unsolicited advice. From my 45-years of age to my almost 300 lbs. on a 5 foot 2 frame, to living in Hamilton, Ontario (not known for its outdoor training weather), I thought most people would not believe that I would be able to carry through with my intentions, and succeed.

Mind you, I had already decided that I was insane, so admonitions that I was crazy would have been fine. But what really struck me as I walked across the finish line was how, regardless of how the race went, my life felt as if it had been changed forever.

I am frequently being asked what inspired me to join Team Yachad and really, it was almost a fluke.

Two years ago, we discovered Yachad’s Yad B’Yad program—which brings typical high school students together with Yachad members for a five-week Israel experience. We were researching summer options for my son Max, then 16 and entering 11th grade. When Max was three years old, he received a PDD-NOS diagnosis, which is on the autism spectrum. He is very high functioning and a mensch.

Since Max is so high functioning, I inquired with Yachad as to which group my son would be in, should he apply for the Yad B’Yad trip—typical or Yachad member. They encouraged him to participate in an upcoming Shabbaton to get to know him better. In the end, Max didn’t participate in Yad B’Yad, but he came home from that Shabbaton thrilled with the new friends and contacts he had made. It was the first time in a long time that I had seen him truly socially happy.

Although Hamilton has a very special community, most boys his age go away for yeshiva (if they are from a more observant home) or don’t come around so often (from less observant homes), so my son was really the only Shabbat observant teenager without close friends to hang out with regularly. And because Max attends public high school, this was the first time that he was starting to socialize with other kids his age and Jewishly observant.

Since then, he has become an active part of Toronto Yachad’s teen leadership board. He switched schools before 11th grade and he has done incredibly well in his new program. All the students are high functioning kids on the spectrum and one is only allowed into the program by invitation. He got straight A’s in the last semester of 11th grade and we were so thrilled with his progress, that when he asked if he could work for the summer instead of going to camp, we were open to it.

We discovered that Yachad has a vocational program at Camp Moshava Ba’Ir in Toronto and we signed him up. During those seven weeks on his own in Toronto, Yachad’s vocational program taught him to negotiate the world of work; about professionalism; about dealing with colleagues and supervisors; and how to be an attentive and agreeable employee. My understanding is that next year, he is likely to be hired as regular staff.

Max and my daughter Ariel (who is 14 and attends as a typically developing peer) both now participate in Yachad. They go to events and Shabbatonim, they get volunteer hours for their participation and make new friends each time. It is an inclusive program where everyone but the advisors are participants and it’s really amazing to see. Kids qualify from the age of eight to participate in Yachad programs and they work to ensure that there is enough support for everyone so that everyone can participate and enjoy. I am glad for my children to have socially conscious and both observant and not observant Jewish friends in Yachad (they have many lovely non-Jewish friends at school).

Yachad has really made an enormous difference in my son’s quality of life. One aspect of Yachad in Toronto Max appreciates is that it is unclear who has disabilities and special needs or not—the lines are blurred. In the beginning, I would ask him after a Shabbaton or event, ‘How many volunteers were there? How many people with disabilities?’ And Max would simply reply ‘I don’t know, there were a lot of participants.’ I love that.

These things inspired me to show my appreciation to Yachad by making a very grand gesture.  I considered the 5k in Toronto but felt that it did not accurately reflect my feeling of gratitude and appreciation toward the organization. In choosing to participate in the Miami Half-Marathon with Team Yachad this year, I knew I would need to stretch beyond my comfort zone to succeed. My love for the organization, and all the incredible services that they offer, is big. I love how all are welcome.  I love how all are included.  It was an appropriate gesture for the magnitude of my appreciation.

Friends, family, and strangers who learned that I trained for the Half-Marathon reacted with admiration, moral support, offers to walk with me for practice and most importantly, something I did not anticipate: People told me that I motivated them!

Now, I don’t think I need to tell you that me being a motivator for someone else to get to the gym is really not something that has happened a whole lot in my life. Sincerely, I have inspired people to swim better (that happens every time I go swimming and someone asks me to correct their strokes!) and to cook better, but never once have I inspired others to work out.  It’s almost comical when you look at it.

But,

On some level, there must be something in people that is saying ‘Wow, if she can do it, I can do it’ and ‘honestly, it was insanely morally supportive to hear that!’  It wasn’t so much ego as it was further accountability for me. Knowing that if I were to decide to ditch practice for no reason, then I would not just be letting myself down, but also some people who found it inspiring that I set this goal for myself.

My goals in participating with Team Yachad were these:

1)  I just wanted to finish.  I didn’t care if everyone goes home before I get to the finish line, I just wanted to finish.

2)  I wanted to raise consciousness about Yachad.  I wanted people to click on the Yachad link and learn about Yachad and what it is, who can be involved (not just people with disabilities!). Those who could benefit from Yachad  should know about it no matter what their abilities (or disabilities) are in life.

3)  I wanted to raise money for Yachad.  My goal was $3,000, and my husband Marc and I raised more than $4,600.

My participation in Team Yachad has the makings of an interesting story here: An amazing organization; a protagonist who is a most unlikely participant in a marathon of any description, at any pace; and in addition, someone who is willing to share their story and their learning process with the public, despite an embarrassing bodyweight and a history of not being fit.

It was not my goal to lose weight. I intend to be fit and if weight loss is a side effect, fabulous. But at this point in my life, I’m not interested in playing yoyo with my weight anymore. I’m so inspired to continue this lifestyle of training and to really enjoy what Team Yachad brought to me.

Andrea & Marc Levy-website
Andrea with her husband Marc, relaxing after the race.
Photo credit: Sam Ulrich

My husband also participated in the Miami race with Team Yachad this year. Our son and daughter volunteered at the Mile 11 water station during the race, passing out water and spraying a hose on hot runners (and boy was it a humid day!) Marc and I were talking about what an amazing experience this was, and we think everyone should have this amazing thing happen to them!

The weekend in Miami with Team Yachad (188 members strong) and our supporters (250 family and friends, and 20 Yachad staff) was amazing. As with Yachad, overall the runners on our team were of all shapes, sizes, abilities and levels of observance. During seudat shlishit (the third meal of Shabbat), I was asked to speak in front of the group. I didn’t know what to say, but as I looked around the room to reflect on the diversity of individuals united together, I reflected my hopes that ‘we’re an example of what it’s going look like when Mashiach comes. What an amazing display of Ahavat Israel we have here: Jews getting to know each other and accepting one another (and truly caring about the well-being of one another) no matter what be their age, ability, or Torah outlook.’ It really struck me that all of us—from so many places and ways of doing things—we were all there for the exact same reason: Promoting inclusion. Promoting Yachad and its vital work within our community.

Being in Miami with so many different people, learning so much about what Yachad is, and about its services, was incredible for our whole family. Max and Ariel tell me they plan to join Team Yachad in the race next year. Marc intends to walk again. Every member of Team Yachad—including yours truly—crossed the finish line.

I feel passionately about getting the word out and I plan on making my goal this year to increase the size of Team Yachad via increasing the number of runners from Canada. We need to spread the word and make sure that we shout it from the rooftops. My family hopes to include more people from our home town, Hamilton, and also Toronto, which is nearby. If we get lucky and can go beyond that, great too!

My signing up for Team Yachad was a truly life changing event. And I will tell you what—if you don’t want to join Team Yachad for next year because you are afraid you can’t, well, I think I am going to walk with you next year. So let me know. Because if I can do it, you can do it!