Ohr was a young woman who suffered from cerebral palsy (CP) and developmental delay. But underneath this superficial layer, Ohr was a smart, upbeat individual. She had a challenging life with ups and downs like we all have – hers was just a little more extreme. When she met my father, Prof. Reuven Feuerstein, one month before he passed away, he told her mother that Ohr was incredibly wise and that he would be more than happy to accept her into his housing program. He said that she should learn to sew, that she had the potential to be an excellent seamstress.
Unfortunately, Ohr recently died in her sleep.
The following is an extract from the eulogy I gave at her funeral: Every morning we begin our prayers saying, “Lord, the soul that you have bestowed upon me is pure.” Us “normal” people need this reminder. At the beginning of every workday, we are exposed to a plethora of obstacles that could divert us from our path, and there’s a chance that our souls might become soiled during the day.
But some people are born with souls that the grime just slides right off of as if they were covered with Teflon.
We are now in the midst of an election period, a time which unfortunately does not bring out the best in our leaders. They cover their souls with so much make-up it becomes impossible to tell which parts of them are real and which are fake.
They are full of smiles and good intentions, but underneath the elegant exteriors they’re holding knives, which they won’t hesitate to use against anyone who threatens their chances of getting reelected.
In some respects, election periods are extremely anti-educational for the younger generation, which is exposed to the intense cynicism and cunning inherent to Israeli political culture. Granted, elections are also a beautiful example of the benefits of living in a democratic state, especially while we are fighting for our existence amid the evil and oppression that exists in dictatorships so close to our borders. And yet there is so much cynicism, and we do all we can to hide from our children the negative aspects of the political experience.
People with special needs are our natural resource. They are pure, innocent souls. They have such abundant wisdom, despite the fact that many of them are not eloquent public speakers. In order to hear their wisdom, we must have the patience, gentleness and ability to experience their inner world. They walk among us and technically we see them, but in reality they are invisible. They’re not really part of our society.
YES, WE do pity them and so we donate money to relevant causes.
But we never consider them to be a resource. My father paved the way for them to become a professional resource and part of the national labor force. But I will speak about this subject another time.
But more than that, people with special needs are a resource when it comes to values. When they smile at us, we know their smile is genuine, not fake. When they speak to us of their pain and anguish, we know that this, too, is genuine. Their hugs are real, free of pretense. In fact, they might even be our last remaining true natural reserve, so different from people who use politeness to cover up ulterior motives.
Every day I say my afternoon prayers in Prof. Feuerstein’s old study at the Feuerstein Institute that he founded. The staff here is made up of incredible individuals, but the institute mostly comprises people with special needs who are being cared for. Some of the residents know how to pray and they hold their prayer books steadfastly.
But some of them only know how to sway with the rhythm of the chanting, or to move their lips as they pronounce the words of the prayers. The other day, one boy stood next to me and repeated every word after me.
When I had finished praying, I felt as if my prayers had been given extra power and were being catapulted up to heaven since they were intermingled with the prayers of all the other righteous people in the room with me. I have no doubt that people who do not know the words to the traditional prayers are the ones who are most entitled to be counted in a minyan, a prayer quorum. They know the secrets of prayer more than any learned rabbi.
They are like the shepherd boy in the Hassidic story who whistles in the middle of the Yom Kippur service in the synagogue since this was the only way he could express himself to God. In the story, the Baal Shem Tov stops praying and then turns to his congregation saying, “Behold, the gates of heaven have finally opened!” There are those who will not count people with special needs in a minyan, but this is only because they are blind to their tremendous spirituality, pure hearts and thoughts.
I am the proud father of Elhanan, who has Down Syndrome, and I have watched myself change over the years as a result. And not just in the details, but down to the core of my persona. Elhanan has taught me to see deep inside people, how to wait patiently for an answer even when it doesn’t come at the lightning speed of Twitter and Whatsapp. He has taught me to see the treasure of experience and wisdom older people who are past their prime have stored up. He taught me to really listen to people who have not had the good luck of being able to finish college or even high school and to appreciate the wisdom they’ve gained from life experiences, which can be greater than any degree from a prestigious university.
One of the most formative experiences of my youth was when a young bank clerk called out to an elderly customer in a brash voice, “Golan! Your children are in charge of your account,” so loudly that everyone around could hear. He didn’t call him “Mr. Golan.” The clerk didn’t even bother to raise his head from the computer screen as he spoke. I’ll never be able to forget the insult I felt in the name of Mr. Golan burning inside of me as I watched this scene play out. I’d never met him and I never saw him again, but this seminal event made me want to live in a world where people do not behave like that.
OHR, AS her name implies, and her friends, may they live long, happy lives, are ambassadors of this utopian world where all of us would love to live. They’ve been given the honor of acting as ambassadors.
And this honor is twofold: Firstly, we must learn to listen to them – to their insights, life lessons and the ways they’ve learned to survive in this hard world. We’ll learn to have the patience to recognize them as the pearls they are and see how they make the world we live in a better place. Second, we must include these individuals as members of our community. And not in a childish, self-ingratiating way, but in a mature, serious way, and most importantly with respect.
Many of them are serious adults who have tremendous inner strength that happens to be wrapped up in a broken or torn package. If we manage to learn to do this, our ability to connect with ourselves and our family members at times when their lives become broken or torn will become even stronger, too.
The author is a rabbi and president of the Feuerstein Institute.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.