When Everyone Plays, We All Win
The world was wowed by Microsoft’s commercial advertising the adaptive device for special needs individuals to play video games with their friends and families. One child shouts, “Now everyone can play!” We are told at the conclusion of the commercial, “You never want your child to be viewed as an outsider. When everybody plays, we all win.”
My mind immediately raced back 30 years ago. For most of my life, I have identified myself as a sibling of a special needs person. My brother, Eyal, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffered a stroke as a 4 year old child, which left him as a quadriplegic for the next 32 years, before his unexpected passing in the fall of 2017. And yet, that label, special needs, never defined him. There was so much more that was special about him than his needs for adaptive devices. For our family, special was what he could partake in, and not what he was excluded from.
My mother used her creative juices daily, adapting simple devices to include Eyal in everything, and I mean everything. Eyal would change the TV channels sitting in his wheelchair with the twitch of an eyebrow. We would play Nintendo together with the click of a button by his chin. Eyal would play floor hockey in PE with a hockey stick taped to his wheelchair. He drove around the mall at high speeds with a custom made joystick in front of his chin. Eyal would light the electric Channukiah with the tap of a cheek, and he would paint masterpieces with a paintbrush in his mouth.
After his death, with an empty hole in my heart, I began to process how the entire world became adaptable to him only as a result of so many other extraordinary people who opened our eyes to the possibilities in front of us. It takes a village may be an aphorism for some, but a reality for so many others who only dream of waking up to a different reality. Our tradition teaches that God said, “Make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell within it.” It is not God who is the architect but rather each one of us with the capacity to build a sacred space for inclusion that has the power to build that sanctuary.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. For some, it lasts one month. For others, it is encapsulated in a “Mitzvah Day.” But for those who live a life connected to my heroes, the special needs community, this life is every day.
My synagogue, Sinai Temple, has been blessed to work in a partnership with Camp Ramah of California and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles to act in the holy work of employing Jews with special needs. For the last month, I have been privileged to watch my new friend and colleague, Zachary, work at Sinai Temple. I have known Zachary for several years. I have seen him at Camp Ramah, as a special needs camper and counselor. I would see Zachary at Hevra, the special needs youth group in Southern California, attending Shabbat dinners, dances, and activities. But this was different. Zachary walked into the synagogue on his first day, accompanied by his mentor, shoulders stooped down, nervous of what to expect and how others would treat him. Would he be different from his co-workers? Would we talk down to him? Could he handle the expectations? He started small, assisting in mailings, sorting fruit for our religious school Tu Bishvat seders, and lending help whenever and wherever necessary.
On his second day, I brought Zachary to our pre-school, where I was to teach the children about the tallit, the prayer shawl. He quickly became the tallit model, as we taught the kids about the different tallitot-colors, sizes, and the like. The next day, Zach accompanied me to our chapel for our pre-school Shabbat party. He set up my keyboard and amplifier, and brought the tallitot to once again share with our pre-school. As the two and three year olds entered, singing Bim-Bam, I watched as they began to wave and shout. “Zachary!!! The tallit man!!” Zach shyly smiled, waved back, and continued his work… As the tallit man had a job to do.
Each day Zach comes to work, there is now a line at my office. “Where is Zach? Can he work with me today?” The foundation of the sacred sanctuary has been laid. He is not put into an empty office, only to come out when finished. Rather, Zach always works with other people, building that sanctuary together, brick by holy brick. Just this past week, Zach was tasked with assembling spice packets for Havdalah, which will be passed out to our congregation. On each bag, Zach attached the tag that read, “Bring the sweet smell of Shabbat into your week!” Every day Zach walks into this physical synagogue building, he in fact is that spice that extends the sanctity of Shabbat into all of our days.
Please don’t get me wrong. Zach is a special young man. But the only thing today that makes Zach more special than anyone else at Sinai Temple is that he is the most popular employee in our synagogue. He is no longer an outsider. As Microsoft brilliantly put it, “Here, everyone can play.”