Helping adults with autism marry

Weiner has helped clients overcome social awkwardness and progress to dating.

Rabbi Dr. Meir Zev Weiner helping people go on with their lives: A student-teacher training lesson. (photo credit: PR)
Rabbi Dr. Meir Zev Weiner helping people go on with their lives: A student-teacher training lesson.
(photo credit: PR)
Rabbi Dr. Meir Zev Weiner believes in miracles. He believes that with the right training program and enough personal attention and support, adults with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism can live independently, marry and enjoy full and productive lives. And he has evidence to prove it.
It all started in 2003 when, while working with kids at risk in Jerusalem, Weiner was contacted by the mother of an autistic man in his mid-20s. She wanted her son to have an Israel experience like other young Jewish adults. Drawing on his background in education, cognitive-behavioral therapy and rabbinics, Weiner created one for him.
The program started in the Old City of Jerusalem, eventually moved to Beit Shemesh and then to Mevaseret Zion. More students joined the program, which was called Yeshiva Bnei Simcha. The special- needs students shared various campus facilities with the general yeshiva population. They lived in the same dorms, prayed together and went on trips together. Often, the special-needs students would attend regular classes in the afternoons and study one-on-one with the other yeshiva students. This combination gave them a tremendous sense of belonging.
Yeshiva Bnei Simcha operated for eight years. After the 2016-17 program, it was forced to close, due to a lack of funding. As Weiner explains it, one by one, the parents, who were thrilled with the experiences their sons were having in Israel, contacted him to let him know that they were no longer able to afford tuition.
The yeshiva currently has 25 prospective students, but it can’t reopen this fall. As Weiner explains, “We have the clients, but they don’t have the money.”
Weiner credits his passion for helping others to his parents. “As a teen, I always felt athletic and was popular. When we were choosing sports teams, I always said, ‘Don’t choose me. Get this guy in.’ I always had a feeling of inclusion.”
Growing up, his home was filled with people who needed help. He remembers one poor couple from Brownsville, Brooklyn, in particular. His mother brought them into the family home, washed their feet, gave them shoes and socks and fed them soup. Although almost five decades have passed, he remembers the words of thanks from the woman his mother tended to. “May God bless your God!” she exclaimed in gratitude.
He also credits his mother with helping 10,000 couples get married. He recalls going out collecting doorto- door with her and also giving checks to needy couples to help them start their lives together.
When Yeshiva Bnei Simcha began to fold under economic pressure, Weiner brainstormed a new way to help the types of clients who were his students.
Many of the students whose lives he has touched have a tremendous desire to live independently, to be gainfully employed and even to get married. But they need help in order to do so. So Weiner, in association with colleagues like Rabbi Reuven Ashenberg, who serves as the director of education and programming, developed the Autism Center for Marriage and Life Skills.
“Autism is a processing disorder,” Weiner explains. “It takes more time and effort for them to answer questions. People with autism are often socially awkward. They don’t make eye contact. Why not? They have trouble getting in touch with their feelings and expressing them. They can’t do two things at once. Focusing on a person hampers their ability to focus on their feelings. So they look away.”
The center, based in the Katamon neighborhood, uses a holistic approach, in a home setting, to teach its clients basic life skills – how to sit next to a woman, what to say after saying hello, how to order from a menu in a restaurant, and the like.
“Our program is based on the pillars of communication and empathy,” says Weiner.
“Our clients might be sloppy,” he continues. “Their shirt is out, their hair is not combed, they have bad breath. They are not aware of the importance of these things. We challenge them to grow. Our clients have a tendency to be introverts, but they are expected to develop the skills necessary to communicate. We encourage them to have opinions and express them. Generally, when they first come to us, they are passive. We want to make them active. We make them do what is hard for them. To grow, they must move forward. And that’s a very powerful program.”
Weiner has helped clients overcome social awkwardness and progress to dating. He works in conjunction with a Haifa-based organization, called Inbar, that specializes in marriages between people with special needs.
“Parents are very involved in these matches,” says Weiner. “I work with the parents, becoming involved in mediation with the two families. In order to be successful, couples like this need family support because, even if they work, they aren’t making a lot of money.”
Limited help is available elsewhere. Shekel is an organization that helps special-needs people find jobs. These clients get some financial help from the National Insurance Institute, but, Weiner says, “it isn’t enough to rent an apartment. In addition, they need case management. If a couple progresses to marriage, they need help going to the rabbinate to register their marriage.”
It’s clear that Weiner is a creative therapist, giving personal attention to each of his clients and being flexible in his approach, to accommodate the particular personalities of the young men with whom he works. Ashenberg praised his colleague, saying, “Rav Meir has love, caring and passion. He’s sensitive, supportive and professional, and he is involved with each and every client.”
Regrettably, though the curriculum and infrastructure exists, Weiner and Ashenberg lack the funding to provide much-needed services. Over and over, clients, many of whom come from low-income families, drop out due to lack of funding. They start the program and want to continue, but the family needs are too great and they can’t afford it.
Ashenberg relates the tragedy in that. “Rav Meir and the program offer these young men the chance to live independently and be like everyone else they know who is already married. These clients look around and see their friends and family get married, and they’re not able to, without the support of the program. The program gives them the tools, knowledge and therapy that they need to be able to live a productive life.
“If they don’t have the program that they desperately need, many of these adult clients will be staying home and be with their parents and not be able to be self-supportive, independent and live their own productive lives.
“This program is desperately needed for adults with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism to live a Torah life and be able to use the resources and educational tools the Autism Center for Marriage and Life Skills can offer them,” he appeals.
The Autism Center is currently running a crowdfunding campaign with The Chesed Fund in order to be able to continue to provide services.
“We’ve got a good program. We have great techniques. And now we realize that the funding has to come from outside the families themselves,” Weiner said.
“Our whole goal is to help people who want to go on with their lives.”