Jewish community must open doors to mentally disabled

When I first started working for the Ethiopian Jews, they had few leaders, and did not have the wherewithal and knowledge of Western Jewry to speak for themselves.

The same can be said for the Jewish retarded.

They have no advocates among themselves; they do not know their rights or how to ask for them. Yet most members of the retarded Jewish community bring much nachas and a certain angelic innocence to our hurried lives. The Jewish mentally handicapped must become full members of the Jewish community.

Although the situation for the Jewish retarded in the United States has been improving somewhat in recent years, it was not that way when our daughter Gloria was growing up, nor even five or 10 years ago.

When Gloria was a youngster, I soon learned that neither our synagogue nor the Jewish community center had programs that focused on the needs of the Jewish mentally retarded. In a small town, I would expect the absence of such services, but during those years we lived in Washington, D.C.; Miami; and Orange County.

While Gloria was a pre-teen and teen, we searched nationally, and found no help from organized Jewry. There was not a single summer camp sponsored by Jews that would offer, for example, a special week for the Jewish mentally handicapped. The only camps that had such programs were sponsored by churches.

Having no alternative, we sent our daughter to church camps, usually fundamentalist, and she came back singing "Jesus Loves Me," — always on key — and we did not care. The Christians gave our daughter a good time and treated her with warmth and respect.

At first I thought that our experience was unusual, but I soon learned that it was not. Jewish mothers in Denver made similar comments in March 1984.

"You take help from wherever you get it," said Elaine Clearfield. "I don't care if they're Baptist, Greek, Iranian or whatever. The Jewish community had done little for the handicapped until relatively recently."

Things have improved — a little. Camp Ramah of the Conservative movement sponsors a week of summer camp for the "mildly" retarded. In New York City, some of the Orthodox groups have special programs, including the excellent Yachad. In suburban Chicago, there is Keshet.

A few year's ago, the Denver community began sponsoring a monthly afternoon of Torah study for the adult Jewish mentally retarded and local JCC also sponsors a nondenominational monthly social program.

In Orange County, thanks to the late Rabbi Robert Jeremiah Bergman and a committed mother, Rose Lacher, the new JCC sponsors a monthly Jeremiah Society meeting, where retarded people can get together and participate in Jewish culture. And in Los Angeles, the Orthodox Etta

Levine Center also serves the mentally disabled.

But, with a few exceptions, such improvements in the Jewish treatment of the retarded did not come from our rabbis, nor did it come from our institutions and organizations.

It came about mostly because of people like Clearfield of Denver, the parents in the Chicago area, and Lacher of Orange County, who simply would not let us forget the teachings of Judaism.

We must ask: Why this neglect? And why particularly in the United States?

We did not find this neglect in Israel, where our family lived for nearly two years. Not only were there well-run schools for the retarded, but after school there were clubs where they could have fun and learn more about Jewish customs.

Why is the United States different?

*Does this neglect of the disabled by Jews come from the Bible, which in simple words states that to make offerings and prayers, you have to have a perfect body?

*Do we Jews ignore our retarded because we hold learning and study of Torah so high that those who do not seem to be able to partake of this mitzvah are seen as less than Jews?

*Is it because years of persecution have taught Jews that learning and education constitute the major survival techniques that have allowed us to preserve our culture over all of these years?

*Is it because the disabled make us uncomfortable and aware of the fragility of our own health, and the tenuousness of our own lives?

Whatever the reason, the Jewish retarded appear to be viewed as a liability. Unable to compete in the highly structured American Jewish community, they essentially become invisible.

The Israelis say American Jews have the galut (Jewish exile) mentality. We make great efforts not to antagonize or disturb our non-Jewish neighbors, to be accepted. Consequently we want always to put our best foot forward.

The Israelis say that they do not have that problem. "We Israelis," they claim, "recognize that Jews are like any other people — maybe even more so."

Are the Israelis right? Do we have this galut mentality toward our retarded? Is it because we as a people have been so persecuted over the generations that in this non-Jewish world we cling to every bit of acclaim that we achieve in education, the sciences, and the arts?

I have no answers, but I expect more of Jews. I have learned that by accepting people who are disabled, by helping them make the most out of their lives, by finding their hidden talents and nurturing them, we as Jews are fulfilling a mitzvah close to that of pikuach nefesh, the saving of a soul.

We must give those disabled children and adults a life of dignity, a chance to become part of the Jewish family and community.

The writer is a research professor at U.C. Irvine. This article was adapted from a sermon Lenhoff gave at Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, where daughter Gloria, a mentally disabled musician who has been performed worldwide, served as cantorial soloist.