“I am the ‘other'”
“We’ve all felt at some point or another in our lives that we do not belong,” says Rabbi Benjy Myers, Educational Director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel emissary training programs. “As educational and spiritual leaders, we can tap into those awkward and painful feelings of being different to better understand our constituents, and appreciate even more the crucial importance of reaching out, making sure every activity is accessible, and ensuring that everyone feels welcome.”
This was the rationale behind a recent training session Myers – who served as a Beren-Amiel shaliach to Dallas, TX himself – ran for future emissaries from Beren and Straus-Amiel, as well as for their spouses from the Claudia Cohen Women Educators Institute.
The day-long seminar on the subject “Understanding, Accepting and Including the ‘Other'” kicked off with two classes in halakha. Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, the programs’ Director of Training and Placement examined the laws pertaining to whether or not a person who uses a wheelchair can be a chazzan, while Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, executive director of the emissary programs, investigated whether a guide dog should be allowed in synagogue according to Jewish law.
Seeking solutions for atypical students
Following this, all the students joined in a round-table discussion under the banner, “I am the other,” in which each person described ways in which they feel or had felt out of place, how they overcame those feelings, or how they hide them.
One student shared his own personal story verbally as well as through demonstration. Diagnosed with severe ADHD, Netanel Kaszovitz had trouble concentrating and sitting still in class. One day, a teacher asked him, “Netanel, what would it take to keep you in the classroom and get you involved productively”?
Kaszovitz’s answer was unusual: “My unicycle.”
Surprisingly, the teacher said, “Ok, so bring your unicycle to class.”
Kaszovitz showed his peers how he learned to adjust his unicycle so it fit snugly underneath his desk, and in doing so shared a valuable lesson with them. “Sure enough, sitting and cycling back and forth kept me engaged in class,” he said. “That teacher proved that seeking a solution to the problems of people who aren’t typical can change the entire trajectory of a student’s life, not to mention the entire class atmosphere.”
Love, family and friendship
The seminar’s concluding session featured a speaker who, though only 13, delivered a powerful message which resonated deeply with the emissaries-in-training.
After being diagnosed with deafness, Roi Klein underwent a cochlear implant as a toddler, enabling him to hear. For his recent bar mitzva, he and his parents Yael and Yigal produced a video detailing the challenges that Roi encounters and illustrating how he overcomes them – from the time he wakes up in the morning until the time he rests his head on his pillow again at night.
“Our students were spellbound by the film,” relates Myers. “It was crucially eye-opening to walk alongside this incredible boy and really experience how the things that we all take completely for granted are obstacles which affect his ability to function and interact with society. Roi fielded students’ questions afterward like a pro, at least as well as any lecturer we’ve ever had. He provided us with valuable insights into how to treat people who are different, the importance of love, family and friendship in instilling confidence and keeping people engaged, and most of all, the essential role that faith plays in maintaining self-esteem in the face of adversity.”