June 22, 2024
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The Baal Shem Tov and Autism?

In a small town in Poland, there was an autistic boy who grew up not knowing how to communicate. One day, shortly before Yom Kippur, he saw a group of people who were traveling to spend the holiday with the Baal Shem Tov. As he often did, the autistic boy just walked out of his parents’ home, without them knowing, and decided to join these pilgrims. Before long, he was standing like a pillar of stone, completely overwhelmed, within the sea of people in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue.

But the boy did not know how to daven. In fact, he couldn’t even speak. He saw all the people davening from the depths of their hearts, and he desperately wanted to feel like he belonged. So he drew a deep breath and let out a shrill whistle that he would sound every time he needed something from his parents. Right in the middle of davening on Yom Kippur, the autistic boy whistled as loud as he could.

The people in the shul were shocked, but the Baal Shem Tov calmed them and said, “A terrible decree was hanging over us. The autistic boy’s whistle pierced the heavens and erased the decree. His whistle saved us, because it was sincere and came from the very bottom of his heart, even though he doesn’t know or understand why.”

We’re all familiar with the original story of the shepherd boy who knew nothing about Judaism. But the parallels in the story to the plight and feelings of a child suffering with autism were too glaring to ignore, so I changed a few details. Please forgive me, and at the same time, please hear me out.

This young, autistic boy only wanted to be part of his community. He wanted to feel that connection. But his disability made connecting in the “normal way” impossible, overwhelming and scary. And so he communicated in the only way he knew how. Granted, it did not sound like music to all those around him, and some clearly felt distracted. But once people changed the way they thought about his actions, they were able to appreciate the beauty, the passion and the way in which this boy found his connection. They realized, at last, that it wasn’t about changing the boy. It was about changing themselves.

One of the distinctive symptoms of autism is the lack of the ability to communicate, create relationships and “connect.” And although there is no cure for autism, it is known that intensive therapy from an early age helps tremendously in giving young people with autism a fighting chance to live lives of which they can be proud. But even more than therapy, the chance to participate in guided and appropriate social settings is of paramount importance to the rehabilitation of children with autism.

This is precisely the reason ALUT runs specialized, therapeutic summer camps for autistic children in Israel. Besides giving parents the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their child is being taken care of properly, ALUT’s summer camps give autistic children the chance to come out of their shells, to understand the concept of friendship and to have a meaningful experience with their peers.

The truth is, raising a child with autism without access to these services triggers a serious downward economic spiral and constant psychological strain for families. Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of Jewish children in Israel who will go without the services they need this summer because of a lack of funding.

Please help if you can by sending a tax-deductible contribution to American Friends of ALUT, 330 West 38th St., Suite 600, New York, NY, 10018, or online at www.alutfriends.org. Thank you for caring.

 

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