June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Shul With the Worst Decorum in the World

By Rabbi Efrem Goldberg/rabbiefremgoldberg.org

This past Shabbos, I found myself davening at the shul with probably the worst decorum in the world. People were not just talking, but some were screaming, shrieking and hollering, others were stomping their feet, banging on the tables, hitting the walls, and jumping up and down. There were individuals pacing back and forth, others coming in and out, doors constantly squeaking and slamming shut. It was, by far, the most distracting davening I have ever experienced. It was also, by far, the holiest davening I have ever been privileged to witness.

The shul at Camp HASC is filled with boys and girls and men and women with special needs, physical and developmental disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and others. Few can participate in davening in the traditional sense; many are not verbal, and most don’t seem cognitively capable. Yet, one cannot help but feel the noises being transmitted from the holy, pure neshamas of HASC’s campers ascend to the highest places of prayer.

To be clear, HASC doesn’t have a staff, they have a roster of malachim, angels who selflessly devote themselves in ways that are superhuman. Because of the level of care and support necessary, each camper has a counselor, a one-to-one ratio. They shower, change, carry, push, cradle and, most of all, smother their campers with love.

At davening, the staff members hold their siddur in one hand and their camper’s hand in the other, or they interrupt their Shemoneh Esrei to pursue their camper who is on the move. As we belted out a beautiful and leibedig Kabbalas Shabbos, several campers put on talleisim, each thinking they were the chazzan, while younger campers sat on their counselors’ shoulders, those who could, danced in circles and others watched from their wheelchairs, often contributing a moan, groan or shriek.

A visit to HASC is an accelerated advanced degree in chesed, an invitation to access the biggest beis medrash of ahavas Yisroel in the world. You cannot come out the same way you entered, as you leave a witness to klal Yisroel’s capacity for kindness, for loving a fellow Jew with no judgment or conditions, and you cannot help but be inspired to improve your own.

Over Shabbos I met a 15-year-old young man named Zev, who has autism and is mostly non speaking. Until recently, little was known about his thoughts, feelings and aspirations. After days of diagnostic testing, the “experts” had determined that Zev had the intelligence of an 18-month-old. But in the last few years, Zev and his similar friend and fellow camper Srulik have worked with an extraordinary communication therapist who utilized the latest techniques to teach them how to type and communicate non-verbally.

It turns out that while on the outside Zev and Srulik seem developmentally stunted, often unable to understand, they take it all in and are filled with deep thoughts, ideas and divrei Torah.

Last month, in honor of his sister’s wedding, Zev’s parents published a booklet of his Torah thoughts that he typed letter by letter. The first entry, Zev’s first dvar Torah, said the following:

Moshe Rabbeinu could not talk perfectly. In spite of this disadvantage, he was our greatest teacher. It seems to me the lesson is clear. It is not the talking that makes a man great, it is the listening and understanding of the messages of Hashem. I think I never had the ability to know my listening was my strength because I looked only at a lonely, quiet life. Now I have hope for my future, the chance to learn Torah, to become a mensch, may you be inscribed in the book of life!

The booklet has entries on several parshiyos and Jewish holidays, and concludes with a message Zev typed to be shared with students of a class he joined to study Torah three times a week:

My name is Zev, I am happy to learn here. I have autism and I cannot talk very well, but I think normally. Please do not be concerned If I make noise or organize things. I may not be able to control my impulses. Please talk to me normally and not simplified. I look forward to being in Navi class.

One of the first things Zev shared was: “My brain is smart; my body is dumb.”

As I read this pamphlet and looked at Zev, I simply couldn’t believe it. What was happening on his inside did not match what I could see on the outside. Externally, he was “broken,” disabled, and seemingly a typical individual with special needs. On the inside, he was whole, smart, capable, thoughtful and articulate. The staff member who introduced me to Zev and his divrei Torah told me this breakthrough not only enormously transformed the way he views Zev, but it has also had a tremendous impact on the way he views all the campers, especially the non-verbal ones.

The bottom line is this: We have no idea what is going on inside a person, what is happening beneath the surface. And then it struck me, this lesson is of course true outside the walls of Camp HASC and it applies in both directions. How many people who seem “whole” on the outside are really broken inside? How many who seem abled on the surface, are in fact disabled emotionally or spiritually beneath it?

The Mishna (Pirkei Avos 2:5) teaches: “Al tadin es chavercha ad shetagia limkomo — don’t judge your fellow until you reach his place.” One can never, ever reach the place of their fellow, we can’t know their experiences, history, unique personality, assets and liabilities, talents and temptations, so how could we judge them? If we are honest, we don’t even have access to reach their place, their innermost world, what is happening inside, so how could we have an opinion or sit in judgment?

I am not saying we shouldn’t hold accountable those who have used their free will to injure, harm, or make choices that impact others negatively. However, Chazal are enjoining us not to assume, judge or disparage simply based on what we see. One would have to “reach his or her place,” something we simply cannot do.

We find ourselves in the Three Weeks, the period of mourning and grieving for the tragedies of Jewish history, the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and for the challenges we continue to face today, including antisemitism and anti-Israel efforts. Our rabbis were not shy in telling us the cause of it all, and the reason redemption has not yet happened: sinas chinam, hatred, animosity, enmity and judgment of one another. When we focus on our differences, when we see the deficiencies in the other, we sit in judgment, we feel tension.

When entering Camp HASC you must walk past a large banner that sets the tone for everything that happens on that holy campus: “I hereby accept upon myself the positive commandment to love my fellow as myself.” The inspiration for the sign at the opening of camp comes from the Arizal’s suggestion for the opening of our davening. The great Arizal taught that before we can speak to Hashem to pour out our hearts for what we want and need, we must first pledge and promise to love Hashem’s other children, to see what we have in common, not what divides, to give the benefit of the doubt, not sit in judgment, to practice ahavas chinam, unconditional love, not sinas chinam, baseless hate.

A different Mishna (Avos 1:6) tells us: Hevei dan es kol ha’adam l’chaf zechus, judge each person in a favorable manner. Rav Menachem Benzion Sacks points out that the Mishna subtly includes a strategy for judging others favorably. Rather than say hevei dan ha’adam l’chaf zechus it says hevei dan es kol ha’adam l’chaf zechus, judge the entire person favorably. The key to drawing positive conclusions is to remember there is, in fact, an entire person, an inside and outside, what you can see and know, and what you will never fully understand.

For those capable of doing more, we should strive for better decorum than the HASC Shul. And if we want to bring Moshiach and end this galus, we must adopt the HASC Shul’s environment of unconditional and non-judgmental love and the HASC’s entry sign that charges us all, knowing that while at HASC some look broken on the outside and they are whole on the inside, there are those in our communities who look whole on the outside but really are struggling with brokenness inside.


Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS), a rapidly-growing congregation of over 1,000 families in Boca Raton, Florida.

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