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I’ve been following and often posting about many wonderful disabilities relates stories this summer—from our successful National Ramah Tikvah Network virtual vocational training and socializing program, to several of our Ramah campers creating successful ventures—from Uriel’s t-shirts were a lot of money was notated, to the shredding company started by Uriel and fellow camper Jacob.

But, it is also important to report on upsetting stories.  It is known that people with autism are sometimes misperceived as “acting strange” or “dangerous” by law enforcement personnel.  Autism Speaks even has a link on their website which explains that “A person with autism might:

Have an impaired sense of danger.

Wander to bodies of water, traffic or other dangers.

Be overwhelmed by police presence.

Fear a person in uniform (ex. fire turnout gear) or exhibit curiosity and reach for objects/equipment (ex. shiny badge or handcuffs).

React with “fight” or “flight”.

Not respond to “stop” or other commands.

Have delayed speech and language skills.

Not respond to his/her name or verbal commands.

Avoid eye contact.

Engage in repetitive behavior (ex. rocking, stimming, hand flapping, spinning).

Have sensory perception issues.

Have epilepsy or seizure disorder.

It then goes on to offer tips for first responders to be able “to identify that a child or adult may have autism, [so] he or she can then respond in a way that best supports the individual.”

 

This is useful background to a troubling case that has been getting a great deal of attention in recent months.  I first learned of the now widely reported story of Mathew Rushkin from colleagues at neuroclastic, the autism self-advocacy organization.  There have also been articles in the Washington Post and Salon, and blogs at neuroclastic.com

Please read some of these articles. It is essentially the story of a young black autistic man was sentenced to 50 years for a car crash.  Rushkin was on a trip to pick up pastries at a Panera where he worked, accidentally struck another vehicle in a parking lot, fled and then had another car collision. According to reports, prosecutors claimed that he was trying to kill himself by citing words he said that others claim were taken out of context, but his defenders insist that it was a genuine car accident.

 

Terra Vance, an autistic woman and psychology consultant, who first told me about the case studied the case in depth, blogs about it extensively, and concluded that it was a regular car accident without suicidal intent. She published a letter from a forensic engineer and traffic collision reconstruction expert who studied the evidence and likewise concluded that it does “not support the theory of suicidal behavior or attempted homicide” but rather “strongly suggests pedal misapplication as the primary collision factor.” This is supported by the fact that he told police during his interrogation that he had applied his brakes, tried to stop and did not intend to hurt anybody.

The forensic engineer's letter also notes that poor executive function is common in autism and ADHD. (I can relate: this author is on the autism spectrum and, because of his executive functioning disability, cannot drive.)

The case is now attracting a lot of attention, protests, and calls for his release. He is still in prison, where his mother claims he has received neither mental health care nor attention for the headaches, dizziness and transient blindness he has suffered since the crash.

A psychologist friend, Marcia Eckerd, has been closely following the case and is pleased with the amount of attention the case is attracting—including from the star of the Netflix series about an autistic person ( Atypical)–and the cast is making a happy birthday video for him.

Marcia’s letter to the governor of Virginia offers a good summary of the worrisome story:

 Matthew was a college student with a job, a girlfriend who volunteered and was praised by the many character witnesses. He is also an autistic young man with a history of a TBI, anxiety and ADHD. The allegation in this narrative, that Matthew committed a “horrible, selfish reckless action” is that he intentionally caused the accident, based on what he said at the time of the accident, that he wanted to die.

What an autistic young man says in a traumatic situation in which he is described as overwhelmed and incoherent, surrounded by police, being yelled at, being pinned against a car, is only evidence that he is completely emotionally overwhelmed. Autistic people can be overwhelmed emotionally by social and sensory overload; this situation went far beyond that.

Matthew was taken to jail and interrogated for 7 hours.  To interrogate an autistic person after a what was clearly a traumatic accident for 7 hours without a familiar person or anyone who is supporting him or trained in autism is to take advantage of him and to undermine him and to overwhelm his ability to cope with the situation and make decisions.

Although to my understanding, VA Beach has people trained to deal with mental health crises and autistic individuals. At no time was a someone trained to deal with an autistic individual in crisis called, even though the entire narrative of the interrogation based on the camera footage is pushing Matthew with the suicidal intent narrative. At one point when Matthew is repeatedly denying being suicidal and stating that it was an accident he tried to avoid, he’s told “but you know what it looks like,” pressuring him to change his own thinking.

The only way Matthew could be determined to be suicidal would be for a trained mental health professional to evaluate him. At no time was there an evaluation by a trained mental health professional with the knowledge and experience to determine if Matthew was in fact suicidal.  A policeman or a prosecutor or a judge are not competent to ascertain if someone is suicidal. No one present was qualified to make that determination. And without an evaluation, there is no evidence that this was intentional.

The only trained mental health professional who came anywhere near Matthew was Dr, Keenan, who evaluated him on 1/17, the day after the bail hearing in which Matthew was denied bond based on the idea that he presented a danger to himself or others. He diagnosed Matthew as having an anxiety disorder and as needing treatment, but said nothing about him being suicidal. Given what Matthew went through in the days since the accident, it is not surprising that he presented as a young man with extreme anxiety

The fact that Matthew signed a plea deal is meaningless. A fundamental quality of autistic people is that they are truthful, and they are subject to being manipulated because they don’t understand when someone is lying and something is against their own interest. If someone told Matthew that signing a paper was the right thing to do, he would believe them. According to Matthew, he thought signing it meant he could go home.

This entire case is based on a narrative that is belied by reality. A young college student with a job, a girlfriend and good community connections as indicated by the letters I read by those with whom he volunteered is accused of having malicious intent to knowingly harm people based on one comment he made in an overwhelmingly emotional moment. Matthew’s treatment by the VA Beach police can only be described as cruel given his autism and the total disregard for his wellbeing.

The prosecution used hyperbole to put it mildly to describe Matthew’s callous indifference to life which has no supporting evidence whatsoever. And no evidence was presented with alternative explanations of what might have caused the accident, although now Terra has a book of possibilities.

Basically, Matthew was presumed to be suicidal and guilty of intentionally causing the accident from the time he was was brought in to the time when he was sentenced with no evidence proving it whatsoever; they could have called in a psychiatrist or mental health professional to evaluate him but they actually weren’t interested.

In jail, Matthew has been vulnerable to being targeted and attacked by other inmates. (Don’t mention drugs- if that shows up publicly there could be consequences). He has had transient blindness and severe headaches but despite his prior TBI, cyst on his pituitary gland and neurological symptoms, his only opportunity for an MRI after 1 1/2 years is to be taken to a jail where there is Covid. The daily heat is over 100 degrees, which exacerbates his neurological symptoms.

165,000 people have signed a petition for his release. BlackLivesMatter has included #FreeMatthewRushin. His case is getting national attention and is before the Governor, which means going to the Commonwealth Attorney and the parole board.

I encourage everyone to follow this case closely and get involved as you see fit.

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Usually, we begin to think about Rosh Hashanah a month in advance.  When the Hebrew month of Elul starts, we begin taking stock, looking back on our year, examining our actions and interpersonal relationships, and planning for the year to come.  In a year like this one, we could use the extra three weeks that the rest of the Hebrew month of Av has to offer.    This year, in addition to examining our actions, we need to figure out what Rosh Hashanah will even look like.

Most years, synagogue members simply show up on Rosh Hashanah and go to their assigned seats.  Depending on the type of synagogue, they sit and pray for a few or many hours on Rosh Hashanah day, Yom Kippur evening and on Yom Kippur.  This year, we are facing a reality that almost no one has faced thus far in life–there may not even be in person services. And if services do take place, they may look very different than in previous years.

There are concerns about social distancing, praying indoors at all, and the very really real issue that shofar blowing and singing emit droplets to the air.  There are concerns about sharing books and kipas and tallises.      I am sure there are even more concerns!

Here are some proposals I have come across so far which make it possible to have the prayer and shofar experience.  The ones involving use of technology are more difficult for individuals and movements who don’t permit electricity on Shabbat and holidays:

 

-outdoor services (this may be a problem in certain parts of the country due to unpredictable weather on September 18th, or for those in urban environments where there simply is no outdoor option)

-much shorter services and/or shifts:  pray the first part of the service on your own at home, no singing, no sermon (or very very short sermon)

-have the shofar blower behind a glass or with a cloth over the shofar

-Zoom services—live or pre-recorded.

 

Just as schools and school districts across the country are preparing various scenarios, including in person schooling, blended schooling and totally virtual schooling, we too should prepare for all sorts of High Holiday options.    While some shuls have already made a final decision, these suggestions can help everyone:

 

-Purchase a mahzor.  It is always good to have a Rosh Hashanah prayer book or several at home.  They can easily be ordered online.

-Purchase a shofar and watch some YouTube videos. One very useful one, the 16 minute, “Tips for Blowing Shofar,” has already had 34m 748 views.  THIS is the big mitzvah of the holidays.  The obligation is upon each person to hear the 100 blasts of the shofar.  What better way to fulfill the mitzvah than by blowing it yourself, for your family?

-Think of ways to meaningfully involve and engage the children.  This is a wonderful challenge, and there are so man right answers.  There are so many wonderful sights, sounds and smells of the holiday, and kids love to participate. 

-This can involve purchasing pretend shofars and Jewish children’s books, or downloading resources and videos, like the many on Bim Bam’s site

-You can go apple picking to prepare for the apples and honey ritual.  You can bake round challahs (with raisins inside!) or other sweet treats—for a sweet year.

-You can research and purchase food items for the special “simanim” ritual.  Kids will love this!  It is essentially a short ceremony on Rosh Hashanah evening, between Kiddush and hamotzi, and dinner, where any number of symbolic foods are eaten, including pomegranates, dates, beets, carrots, beets and more.  Each item has a Hebrew word and a special play on words offers a wish for the upcoming year.

-plan a family tashlich trip to a nearby lake or river, where each family member can cast bread crumbs, symbolically casting away our sins.

 

This Rosh Hashanah certainly may look different from past Rosh Hashanah services. No doubt there are very real challenges to public (especially indoor) worship. But that doesn’t have to mean the holiday will be a bust.  Pick some apples, learn to play shofar, make some round challahs, get those stories ready and have a great holiday!  You can even order some new clothes online to make the holiday really special!

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I had two “very Jewish” experiences yesterday in Western Massachusetts.  One is not so surprising—it was at a backyard, socially distanced bar mitzvah in Great Barrington.   The other was on the hiking trails at Monument Mountain.  What was special is that they were “Just Jewish” moments. Perhaps one silver lining of the Covid pandemic are these “Just Jewish” moments.
For me, “Just Jewish” moments are when Jewish people connect meaningfully—and such topics as level of observance, affiliation, religious garb, etc. are not relevant or important to the experience.  People just reIate meaningfully, person to person, and what separates and divides is not an issue.  I actually think the pandemic has led to an increase in such “Just Jewish” moments.
Before the pandemic, Jews who affiliate with a certain synagogue or denomination were spending a great deal of time with people “like them.”  Now that most people are not attending synagogue or Jewish communal events or in person simchas, they are not interacting regularly in person with other Jews who are like them.  When these opportunities to meet in person DO present themselves, they are pleasant and people are not looking for differences.
I have attended several “hybrid” bnai mitzvah lately, where a small group met in person for a service, and many others attended on Zoom.  Zoom has allowed family members who may not have felt comfortable attending a certain type of religious service, or eating the food at the event to be present.  Instead of tension and fights and slights, there is good feeling.  The whole family is together—to celebrate a simcha.  They are talking about the bar or bat mitzvah, not about the kashrut status of the food, the separate/not separate seating at the service, etc.   I have observed this phenomena a few times this summer.  This makes me happy.
After yesterday’s bar mitzvah, I changed out of my “outdoor summer bar mitzvah outfit” and in to my hiking outfit.  I hiked alone.  I wasn’t wearing a kipah since my summer hat was protecting my head from the 95-degree sun.   I had no outward sign that I was Jewish—or so I thought.  Near the top of the trail, a friendly 55-ish Chabad couple was coming down.  I resisted my usual inclination to strike up a conversation. After all, “You are Jewish?!” is an awkward conversation starter!  As they got closer, they read the Hebrew my shirt—I had forgotten that I was wearing one of my many Ramah shirts!  We had a lovely conversation about everything from the people in their community who attend and work at Ramah, the local kosher caterer, PJ Library and the great resources on Chabad.org (the rebbetzin and I bonded over both doing some writing for them).   We even exchanged business cards and wished each other an easy fast on Tisha B’av—later this week.  I got a lovely email from the rabbi about our meeting—and “how Hashem directs the footsteps of man.”
I am a big fan of Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.  In his Times of Israel op ed, his bio reads: “…A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers “Just Judaism” to any denominational label.”   I hope we will continue to have even more of these “Just Judaism” and “Just Jewish” moments, long after the pandemic is over. 
 
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 Every year, at Rosh Hashanah and Passover, I receive a hand written New Year’s card from Matthew, a camper from my Tikvah bunk in 1984 and 1985 at Camp Ramah in New England.  We still correspond on Facebook, and he remembers the names of everyone in our bunks those years.  Matthew is still in touch with some of his bunkmates and always fills me in on how each person is doing.  I know about many of them, of course, since I am also in touch with them. 

When I began posting about “Tikvah at 50” and some of the online events we are planning, Tikvah alum from years and decades ago began to post.   Eric, also in my bunk in the mid ‘80s, wrote, “Wow, 50 years! I'm proud to have been in that edah back in the 80's. Todah Rabah to Herb and Barbara Greenberg for creating such a legacy. Too bad that due to the virus, there will be no 50th anniversary celebration.”  Eric was paying tribute to Tikvah’s founders, who had the vision to create an environment with people with disabilities were included in a Jewish overnight summer camp—starting in 1970.  Eric was also feeling sad and disappointed that the big in person reunion scheduled for last Sunday—July 19, 2020—at Camp Ramah in New England—would be postponed.

Matthew read Eric’s comment and added, “I remember the Tikvah group very well and the Greenberg’s who ran the Tikvah Program.  It is very bad that we cannot get together for this wonderful event at the camp this summer to enjoy this event and to see everyone.  If I could get the schedule of the events, I would like to be part of the events on the computer or Zoom. Thank you.” 

I received so many similar text and Facebook messages—from alum of Tikvah from 5, 10, 20, 30, and 36 years ago. 

The message is clear.  Tikvah alum had the same positive, meaningful, impactful Jewish summer camp experience that their peers had—and they want to continue staying connected with this special community.  Our Virtual Voc Ed Training and Socializing Program is showing us the power of connecting online. Participants from Toronto, Sacramento, Chicago, DC, Florida and other places—across 4 time zones, have been meeting to learn and socialize—and they are really connecting. 

Reshet Ramah has succeeded in connecting alum from across camps, from across the generations.  We will continue to find ways to further develop and expand our National Ramah Tikvah Network to find new, innovative ways for members of the Tikvah Programs to stay connected—to each other, and to the larger camp communities!

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