I was recently reading the current issue of HaMizrachi, which is published by the religious Zionist movement. The major part of the issue was devoted to Rav Soloveitchik z”l as a giant of religious Zionism. There were also articles of general interest about religious life in Israel. One article in particular caught my attention and I shared it with my wife. As she finished it she exclaimed, “WOW! You should write about this in the Link.” Since I try to listen to my wife, here it is.
At the Seder we read about the child who is unable to ask. Rather than referring to a very young child, someone who lacks a Jewish education, or even one who doesn’t care enough to ask, perhaps it is referring to a very different child. Maybe the haggadah is talking about a child who because of a disability is unable to ask. We are then still obligated to expend every effort to educate this precious child like a caring and patient mother, which is why the educational mandate is expressed in the feminine.
The article describes a religious family that made aliyah. Their fifth child’s development was typical for his first five years. Then overnight everything changed. He stopped talking, forgot all that he had learned, regressed behaviorally, and required 24/7 supervision. He was eventually diagnosed with a form of encephalitis and rare late onset autism. The family tried everything, including giving him a new name with the hope that since his first five years were fine, the current change could somehow be reversed, and that it was an anomaly. Unfortunately however, this youngster would remain a low- functioning autistic child.
On the plus side, Israel is committed to educating all children, including those with special needs. In addition, Israel provides support for families of children with special needs. While no amount of support can alter the reality that parents of profoundly disabled children face, Israel provides the following forms of assistance:
~ Special education services are provided until a child is 21.
~ There are religious schools that serve these children.
~ Teacher-to-student ratios are low.
~ School is in session all year except for two weeks at the end of the summer.
~ Families of special needs children receive a stipend each month to cover additional services and to make up for the fact that (usually) the mother cannot work outside the home.
~ The IDF grants extra time off for siblings to help care for a younger child.
~ Many communities provide teenage volunteers on Shabbat to give parents a respite.
~ Parents of autistic children are entitled to at least 15 “vacation days” for their child to spend either with another family or at a special program like Shalva. In the case mentioned above, the boy is quite anxious about leaving home, so the family was allowed to bring someone in to help take care of their son to make Shabbat more normal.
This young man will be taken care of by Israel throughout his entire life. Hopefully he will be able to get to the point where he can live in a group home Whatever his needs may be, there is a framework and funding to help him at every stage of his life.
Returning to our Haggadah theme, even if children cannot have a participatory place at the table, Israel is there to care for them.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was the founder of the SINAI Program for children with special needs.