“That Word”

Yoni and Gabi

Yoni and Gabi

I recently attended a birthday party for a friend. There were sixteen people at the party — I knew four of them — one’s a very close friend of mine. We were all sitting down to eat when somebody used the word retard.

Of course, I’d heard it, but seeing as the guests were mostly strangers to me, I decided to just move on, and let it go. I convinced myself that this person — this girl-who-used-the-word — didn’t know that she was misusing “that word,” that is, using it in a negative way. My close friend, knowing how I feel about people using “that word” (and I truly believe my friend didn’t mean any harm by it, and did not expect the girl-who-used-the-word to react as she did), jokingly said,

“Yoni, did you hear that?”

I tried to laugh it off instead of starting a debate on why we should or shouldn’t say “that word.”

Which did not happen.

Instead, the girl-who-used-the-word, turned around and asked me why “that word” bothered me?

In an attempt to avoid a major disagreement, I kindly explained that the word “retard” bothers me, and would she use another word. Like many people my age, (I’m 23), she thought that it would be amusing to keep using “that word” to get a rise out of me. I continued to explain that I personally don’t like getting into this kind of conversation with random people that I don’t know, let alone at a friend’s birthday party. Just as in previous situations I have been in, where I’ve heard people justifying the use of the word “retard,” the girl-who-used-the-word began sharing her thoughts;

“But I don’t mean anything bad by it,”

“It’s just a word,”

“It bothers you because you work in that field,”

The last one is what really hit home for me, and I was ready to burst but kept my cool. I wanted to say, “No, it bothers me because I have a sister who’s retarded,” just to see what her reaction would be, and what would be the next excuse she would have for using “that word.” Instead, I resisted, and (slightly more aggressively than before) explained that I have my own personal reasons for my reaction when people use “that word,” and could she please respect my decisions.

At this point, I realized I wasn’t going to change this girl-who-used-the-word’s mind, and that in the process had put myself into an agitated mood.

When I find myself in a situation like this, I like to use a technique that I practice when working with kids. The main point of the technique is to bring the conversation back to something to which both parties can relate — individually and together. I asked the girl-who-used-the-word to respect me as a person, and just use a different word. Just like when you ask someone on the bus not to put their feet on the seat. They might not think it’s a big deal, or see why it would bother someone, but usually out of respect for the other person they’ll take their feet down. People in any setting should be able to have safe conversations with each other — to learn and discuss topics that spur different opinions, and in this case, not put the other party guests in an uncomfortable situation.

I ended up leaving that party feeling very irritated. It wasn’t just because “that word” was used, but that I was put into a compromising position — either abandon my principles or come off as an opinionated person who went off on a rant, lecturing someone at a birthday party.

When I mention “that word,” I am not just talking about the word “retard,” or “retarded.” It’s about so much more than that.

Many of us, myself included (my mother can attest to that), take very little time to consider how our words can hurt someone — with or without our knowledge. Whether it be racially, anti-Semitic, sexist or just a mean word, we should all just take a second, and before we open our mouths, try to respect the people around us.  Like my mother always says, “think before you speak!”

Yoni is the Teen Leadership Coordinator for Shutaf. 

I am not afraid. Finding strength in difference.

Written by Shutaf co-founder, Beth Steinberg, this blog originally appeared in the Times of Israel on December 10th, 2014

Hi, I’m Beth. I’m mother to Akiva, who’s 17 and has disabilities.

I am not afraid.

My son’s challenges are significant but I’m not afraid.

I am unsure about the future. His happy adulthood, my happy years as an older adult. What are his rights, what do I deserve, what will be the responsibilities his older brothers will shoulder? Will he be happy?HappyPic

I worry he might not be happy. But he’s almost always happy. That makes me less afraid.

When I write about Akiva – his needs, his challenges, my challenges – I choose my words carefully but I am not afraid. Except for when I hit ‘publish.’

When I talk about our journey as a family – the tough moments, the tearful moments, the moments that I just wish it were different – I try to be honest. I know honesty is important. I know many people pity us, pity him, don’t truly understand what it means to be his parent, his full-time advocate, his person, his people, his caring community. We’re the people who help him shower and dress, who care for him when he is sick, who sing songs with him. We’re the people who love him. Sometimes, I wish it were different but I am not afraid.

When I post a picture of Akiva, I choose the happy ones, the ones where his cute, uneven teeth, his often crossed-eyes, his sometimes grubby face, are softened by the happy smile on his face. He’s kinda funny-looking but aren’t we all?

I am not afraid to show the face of disability – his disabilities that is – via my son. I am not taking advantage of his well-being. I am letting the world know that disability is happy, disability is every emotion and more. Just like not having a disability is so many things and so many emotions and so many experiences.

I am not afraid of exposing us, of sharing him. While I know he’s unaware of this exposure, I know that showing him to the world, my extended world, will help ease fears and misconceptions about disability. I hope.

Akiva on his way to a party

Akiva on his way to a party

But I am afraid of a world that treasures beauty. Where skinny bodies and 6-pack abs, along with being blonde and gorgeous, is regurgitated on television and in movies. There are few positive images shown of real people who look different, as opposed to actors playing a part.

I’m afraid of a Jewish world that treasures learning. Where how many degrees and how much you earn, gets more respect than your dedication to being a good person, an inclusive person, a person who believes that we were all created in G-d’s many images.

I’m afraid for other parents of children, teens and adults with disabilities. Those who feel unsure that the world will appreciate their loved ones. That the world will look kindly on their stories. Their tales of difference and challenge, of unusual beauty lost and found.

I’m afraid of a world that divides people up according to who can and who can’t. A world that divides those with disabilities according to who’s got this and who’s got that. A world that decides who’s high-functioning – whatever that really means – and who’s not. A world that sentences you and judges you for your difference without knowing what that really means.

So, I work past the fears. I tell his story. I tell our story. I invite you in, to read, listen and comment, so that you can understand and appreciate. So you can smile at the different-looking-behaving-whatever person the next time you see them on the street and be glad that they’re a member of your community. Because their people, those who love them, need you to try to be less afraid.

“And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” Paul Simon


Jay Ruderman. Give the guy a break would ya?

Jay Ruderman Photo Credit: Noam Galai

Jay Ruderman
Photo Credit: Noam Galai

By: Beth Steinberg

In the seven years since Miriam Avraham and I co-founded Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, I’ve marveled at a much-repeated conversation.

Dramatis Personae:
Beth, Shutaf co-founder
JENcO, Jewish education/community/non-profit worker

JENcO: “Inclusion programs. That sounds really exciting, do you know Jay Ruderman?”

Beth: “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do know Jay Ruderman.”

JENcO: “Have you thought of applying for funding? I heard that they’re doing lots of funding in the area.”

Beth: “Shutaf is proud to be supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation.”

JENcO: “Well then that’s good, right? You’re all set then – I hear he’s giving a lot in that area.”

Beth: “Jay and the foundation are important advocates as well as funders, but they can’t be the only ones. More support is needed.”

JENcO: “Right. Well I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

The rise of the Ruderman Family Foundation in Israel has been one which we’ve followed with pride at Shutaf. We were fortunate enough to meet Jay in the early years, to introduce Jay and Shira to what we had founded, and to receive Jay’s mentorship and interest as well as three years of the Foundation’s support for vocational activities as part of our Teen Young Leadership Program.

Jay’s prodded us to get our message out, to push and push, using social media, blogging and any press we can get, in order to send home the message of inclusion and acceptance as community values.

And we’ve worked. Hard. In addition to putting ourselves out there personally in articles and posts that speak of the joys and challenges of parenting a child with a disability, we’ve knocked on many doors.

The Jerusalem municipality, the Knesset, along with numerous government agencies, organizations, foundations and potential donors who profess to believe in the need for inclusive programs and the importance of professionalizing and improving existing programs for children and teens with disabilities.

We tell people about our innovative and successful year-round inclusion programs for children and teens in Jerusalem. We tell them how many children attend Shutaf programs, more than 150, as well as the types of activities we offer, including our favorite program of all, and the reason we started, summer camp. We share how we’re creating success for all participants and also how we’re struggling to stay afloat financially and find our way to long term sustainability.

And we have that conversation.

Sometimes I say “you know, it really takes a village in order to create a groundswell and make lasting change. Jay needs your voice too.”

Sometimes I say “the Ruderman’s can’t be the only ones out there ‘on the barricades,’ we need other funders to join the movement and help sustain innovative programs such as Shutaf that are taking chances and making a difference.”

I wonder, when did we become so complacent about something so compelling? So willing to put the cause of equality for every member of the Jewish community in the hands of so few? So willing to see Shutaf and programs like it fail because the funding just didn’t come together in a sustainable way to ensure its future.

Doesn’t it matter to all of us? Shouldn’t we all care about this issue? Hasn’t Jay put himself out there enough publicly about the issues, day in and day out? I think so.

Just this week, we visited Jay in the foundation’s new offices in Rehovot. We sat and debated the worth of a heavy or lighter hand when it comes to igniting the power of the community about integration and people with disabilities. Jay, in his modest and almost self-effacing way commented, “I can lead and tell the community where to go…[but] I don’t want to call them on the carpet about what they’re not doing yet, or what they’re doing wrong in my opinion.”

It’s time to give the guy a break and join him in the fight for inclusion – as a donor, as someone who wishes to be educated about the issues  – everywhere, for everyone.

If we work together…everything is possible.