A few weeks ago, I was a guest at a Shabbat retreat (called a Shabbaton) at a synagogue near my house. I was invited by an organization called ETTA to experience the community they create for individuals with disabilities.
ETTA was started almost 25 years ago. They have five group homes in the Southern California area and they support activities and events that help individuals learn life skills and build confidence while participating in rewarding job, social, and recreational activities, including summer camps and Shabbat experiences such as the one I attended.
What’s special about ETTA is that the volunteer base for the organization is made up of many teenagers in the community who learn how to serve communities with disabilities. This approach to serving the needs of individuals with disabilities not only helps those in need, but it facilitates a community awareness of differences and raises a generation of teenagers who have learned sensitivity, skills, and compassion in a very meaningful way.
What I saw when I attended the Friday night portion of this Shabbaton was about 50 young adults with special needs accompanied by enthusiastic and supportive teenagers and adults who helped us all come to Shabbat services to pray together. Then we had a festive dinner which started with making the blessings over the wine and grape juice and the challah, and singing songs to welcome Shabbat in together.
There was a variety of young people with disabilities there at various levels of comfort; some were very shy and needed gentle coaxing to participate at their comfort level, and others were very outgoing, ready to answer questions the leaders asked about what’s something they were grateful for and what ETTA has done for their lives. There were some who needed a lot of guidance, and I was especially touched to see teenagers working so tenderly with those participants, speaking to them gently and assessing their comfort as the evening progressed.
I have so many memories of Shabbat dinners at camp which looked a lot like this: an over-excited leader getting everyone in the Shabbat mood who would invariably lose his voice by Saturday night because of his enthusiasm in leading us in song and prayer; the anticipation of what activities would be planned for a group of eager participants all weekend; the undeniably “Jewish” feeling you get when surrounded by a room full of people all singing songs together—even if you don’t know the words, you can “lai-la-lai-lai” along and feel part of something.
It was dinners and weekends like these when I started feeling part of something bigger than myself. They were about identifying something as positive rather than what other people may see as negative. It was finding the uniqueness in my Jewishness in a world and a country that may not always seem like they “get” us. That’s how I remember my camp time and my early experiences with Shabbatons. It’s profound.
And how critically important this is for individuals with special needs in particular, who may be marginalized and rejected by mainstream society or left out of conventional Jewish practice; who look different and act different in ways many of us can’t even fully comprehend.
I am so grateful ETTA and other organizations like ETTA exist; not only for the individuals with disabilities who they serve, but for those of us who get to volunteer, participate in their learning and their joy, and remember again how sweet it is to be loved and included and appreciated—how good and pleasant it is to sit together as part of the same family of humanity as Jews.
ETTA has a Gala fundraiser in Los Angeles on December 13. Please consider attending or donating to support their wonderful work. Visit their website http://www.ettagala.org/ for more information.