How our Differently-Abled Daughter brought Blessing to our Congregation

Rabbi Michael Panitz
Temple Israel, Norfolk

As a rabbi, I have had many opportunities to observe the various culture of community that congregations form. Some are accepting of diversity, some are fearful of it and closed off.As the father of aneurologically-handicapped adult daughter, I have had a great emotional, as well as professional, investment in finding– and promoting– openness to (and indeed celebration of) human diversity in the congregations that I serve. My wife, Sheila, and I raised all of our children, including Emily, within the congregation, and the congregants embraced her. My part of the story, therefore, was to model and even to expect inclusion. That has been a success story, and that in itself would be worth stressing. But there is more: What neither my training nor my professional abilities have prepared me for, however, is the degree to which Emily herself entered the life of our congregation, and the transformations that she herself wrought.

Emily came to our congregation when she was 11. Now she is 29. In that time span, the congregation has enthusiastically celebrated her bat mitzvah, her high school graduation, and many birthdays. Even as I rejoiced in Emily’s acceptance, a part of me wondered– was this a special favor to a popular rabbi and spouse? Or was this a genuine rejoicing in Emily’s life?

Emily supplied the answer. She herself organized the members of the daily chapel service into a supper club. Once a month, they go out together, usually to a restaurant that she has recommended (although the process is ultimately democratic). That evening service is by far the best attended of the month! Emily is the social secretary for the group, sending out reminders, negotiating the occasional date changes, keeping people in the loop.

Children need to declare their independence of their parents. Developmentally delayed children do, as well, although it is obviously harder for them, and harder in a different way for their parents. Here, too, Emily found a way: At our Shabbat services, which she attends regularly, she sits with a circle of her friends– adults, ranging in age from slightly older than her to a generation older. There is no age-segregation in her social world.

Emily maintains her circle in the Shabbat luncheon that we put on after each Sabbath service. While Sheila and I check up on her, invariably, she does not need our help at those moments, because she has arranged everything with her circle of friends.

Are they taking care of her out of noblesse oblige? I observe closely and I ask, to confirm what I see: these folks are happy and proud to be her friend. Friends do for each other. If one friend is not as physically able as another, it is only natural for the more mobile or dexterous one to use those blessings to help the other friend. And it is also only natural for the less mobile or dexterous one to do her part– to bestow a smile or a thank you, all the more meaningful for its being totally guileless.

Emily has given our congregation the opportunity to see the divine image in each of us, to cultivate a soul-satisfying relationship not based on have a commensurate set of abilities with the other person, but simply because we are all children of God. Therefore, it is no hyperbole to say that she has been a blessing to the congregation, even as they have been a blessing to her.