autism

Original Article Published On The Chabad.org

Professor Stephen Shore has an important place at the tablenot only in the world of autism but at Shabbat and study tables at Chabad Houses around the world.

Shore, who is autistic himself, is clinical assistant professor at Adelphi University’s Ruth S. Ammon School of Education and a universally respected authority on the condition. For a number of years, he has been a frequent visitor of Chabad Houses from Texas to Moscow to Shanghai.

“I travel around the world and am usually in at least one country a month to talk about autism,” he tells Chabad.org. I always try to visit the local Chabad wherever I am.”

Shore does not keep his love for Chabad to himself. While in a city for a conference, he has been known to bring fellow conference attendees to Chabad as well. Shelly Christensen, a disabilities inclusion advocate, author of From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community and a member of the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) core team, first met Shore at an Autism Society of America conference and they kept in touch, presenting together at conferences and often sending each other “Shabbat Shalom” text messages.

“When the Autism Society of America conference was in Milwaukee, we were excited to receive an invitation to come to Shabbos dinner from Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shmotkin of Chabad-Lubavitch of Wisconsin,” reports Christensen, who attended with her colleague and friend. “Sitting at their table, warmed by the glowing candles, we each said a blessing, enjoyed a meal that reminded me of my bubby’s Shabbos dinners, and shared our stories and how Judaism inspired our work.”

With his experience on campus as a professor and with Chabad worldwide, Shore was asked four years ago by Rabbi Yankel Lipsker of Chabad at Adelphi, right, to serve as a faculty advisor to Chabad.

Lectures and Presentations Around the World

Shore has taught and given workshops—impromptu and formal—at Chabad Houses around the world. In China, Rabbi Shalom D. Greenberg of the Shanghai Jewish Centers invited Shore to speak about autism. He has delivered more formal presentations on autism at Chabad of West Hempstead, N.Y., and at the Friendship Circle New Jersey in Livingston, N.J.

Closer to home, Shore has delivered Shabbat lectures for Chabad on Campus-Garden City at Adelphi University. With all of his experience both on campus as a professor, and with Chabad worldwide, he was asked four years ago by Rabbi Yankel Lipsker of Chabad at Adelphi to serve as faculty advisor to Chabad. He graciously accepted the offer.

In addition to Shore’s hundreds of conference presentations and articles, he has written three books: Understanding Autism for Dummies (2006), Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum (2004) and Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (2003).

Shore with a mitzvah-tank outside a Russian center where he was lecturing

Shore, who holds a doctorate in education and a master’s degree in music education, has been known to play “Tumbalalaika” on random pianos he discovers in such public places as international airports. “It is one of the songs my parents played as part of the early intervention period.” Shore lost language skills before the age of 4 before starting to get them back. He was deemed “too sick” for outpatient therapy, and his parents were told to institutionalize him. Shore openly shares his personal story at conferences and at Chabad Houses around the world.

Found Chabad on the High Holidays

Shore was introduced to Chabad “about five or six years ago,” when he was commuting between his home and family in Newton, Mass., and the university. “The High Holidays were coming, and I said, ‘Let me see if I can find a shul,” he reports. Shore was warmly welcomed at Chabad of Mineola by Rabbi Anchelle Perl. “They called me for an aliyah, and I kept going.”

He returned to Chabad for Shabbat dinner. “Rabbi Perl invited me for dinner in his home. It was a pretty cool thing.” Shore learned that there were also services on Saturday morning. He was curious, attended one Shabbat and was delighted. “It was worth it. There was Kiddush after davening.” He playfully notes, “I’ll go anywhere with food.”

Shore says, “I learned that if I stuck around a little longer, there was mincha after lunch. That seemed reasonable.” He has been hooked ever since, regularly attending services at the Chabad both Fridays and Saturdays when he’s on Long Island.

Shore has spent many Shabbats at Chabad in Moscow, where he was given a tour of the 11-story building by Rabbi Yaakov Klein, executive director of the International Jewish Community of Moscow.

An International Travel Companion

“When I realized that Chabad was international and is a big network, I thought, ‘Maybe I can go wherever I am,’ ” exclaims Shore, who began seeking out Chabad Houses and rabbis whenever he was in town for a conference over Shabbat. “I have probably been to more Chabads than anyone I know.”

“It is fascinating to see the variations and similarities,” the professor continues, noting that “wherever Chabad is, when you step over the threshold, you may as well be in Brooklyn.” Shore notes that some services are longer, some are shorter; there is more singing in some places and less singing in others; there are different melodies sung during the services, and the physical setup varies widely. “It can be really small, with services in the rabbi’s house, or it can seat hundreds,” yet there is something that makes them all seem as one, observes Shore.

When Shore is at a Chabad center, he is happy to give back. Once the local Chabad rabbi learns of the professor’s impressive credentials, he is often invited to give a short talk on the spot or a longer one the next day. “I tend to connect my Chabad talk to my life as an autistic person, so I focus on that, and throw in things I will be presenting at the upcoming conference.”

In his discussion, Shore often shares a moving story and video of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—speaking on two occasions with the parents of an autistic boy who lived in an institution in England. “I like to talk about these two short video clips of the Rebbe. He seems to intuitively know and use a strength-based approach. He tells the father that the son should have a pushke [charity box] in his room and remind all visitors to put money in the pushke for tzedakah.”

Shore with Igor Shpitsberg, Director of Our Sunny World, a rehabilitation center in Moscow for children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Shore will sometimes go to great lengths to get to a Chabad House. “I was speaking at a conference and hunted down a Chabad House a few miles away,” reports Shore, who chanced upon Rabbi Yitzchok Schmukler and Chabad of the Bay Area in League City, Texas. “I had such a good time that when I was back in Texas and was 90 miles away, I rented a car so I could drive over!”

In Vancouver, Canada, Shore was pleased to find the Chabad-Lubavitch Okanagan in Kelowna, British Columbia, was within walking distance of his hotel. “I called up and came for Shabbat dinner. I got there and found the smallest Chabad I had ever seen. It was just the rabbi—Rabbi Shmuly Hecht, his family and one guest. Despite the small crowd, Shore observes, “I never saw more enthusiastic singing and dancing!” The rabbi intended to walk Shore halfway to his hotel. Before they knew it, they were at the hotel, where Shore reports there was “more dancing.”

The next day, Shore learned that the rabbi had a profound Jewish experience on his way home. Rabbi Hecht spotted a group of college students, potentially drunk, and he was a bit fearful. One person asked him, “Hey, are you Jewish?” The rabbi replied tentatively, “Yes, I am.” A Polish youth from the group explained that he, too, was Jewish, and was having a hard time fitting in. The rabbi, in his traditional Shabbat attire, replied, “Well, do you think I fit in?!” The two connected. The rabbi called Shore to tell him, “Hashem had a reason for me to walk you all the way to the hotel.”

Shore with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia

Shore has spent many Shabbats at the Chabad in Moscow, where he was given a tour of the impressive 11-story Chabad building by Rabbi Yaakov Klein, executive director of the International Jewish Community of Moscow. “It is the biggest Chabad I have ever seen,” reports Shore, noting their two restaurants, gyms and study halls. “It is like Chabad meets JCC!” When Klein learned of Shore’s work, he felt Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar should meet him. Shore was delighted, affirming that “they do a mean Shabbos. The dinner was amazing, and I got to do a good tefillin wrap while in Moscow.”

While his travels have slowed down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he is eager to get back on the road to share his experience with and knowledge of autism with the world—and, he says, to “nourish his neshamah [soul] with Chabad in places near and far.

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Originally published on Chabad.org

Chabad emissaries’ unique celebration and video for their son with special needs

When the Diskin family was contemplating a move from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to Munich in the late 1980s, there was no Chabad presence in Germany, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and they were instructed by the Rebbe’s secretary to get their parents’ permission before considering the move. Thirty years later, Rabbi Yisroel and Chana Diskin speak fluent German, provide for the many needs of the diverse Jewish community of Munich and oversee 19 Chabad centers around the country. The Diskins have also been open with the community about the personal and practical challenges they have encountered during the last 13 years with their youngest son, Zalman, a young man with autism and hearing impairments.

The Diskins were blessed with five children in the first decade of marriage. They always wanted more and began to lose hope that they would have additional children. Then, children numbers six and seven were born back to back. “We were euphoric,” reports Chana Diskin. “When our sixth child, Zalman, was born, the whole community came together for his bris.”

When Zalman was 5 months old, he contracted meningitis, and the Diskins began an unchartered, challenging journey—one that involved a great deal of learning and soul-searching. They noticed a hearing loss at 16 months; he had a cochlear implant after that. At 3 years of age, Zalman began to display symptoms of autism. “We were very determined to do whatever we could to help him recover,” says Chana Diskin.

The Diskins had to juggle their roles as community leaders and as parents who were dealing with the many issues related to Zalman. Chana Diskin processes difficult situations through talking with friends and people close to her. She frequently discussed Zalman in various classes she led; and in “a small, intimate women’s group,” one participant boldly asked, “Did you think you were playing with fire, forcing G‑d’s hand and wanting more kids?”

She feels it took until Zalman was 9 or 10 to come to terms with the fact that “this is who he is and who our family is.” Yet her questions and concerns continued. “When Zalman was 12, it dawned on me that he won’t be able to say a brachah [blessing] or count in a minyan [the quorum of 10 Jewish men needed for public prayer]. It struck a bad chord in me. I was very upset; it insulted me!”

Diskin remained convinced that Zalman understood a lot more about being Jewish than people realized. “We are fascinated by his connection to Yiddishkeit, on his level. Zalman understands about candles, Kiddush and challah on Friday night. He knows to shut off his iPod when we light Shabbat candles and understands that he can’t watch videos on Shabbat. He also knows that he can’t eat non-kosher food in his German public school.”

She and her husband were also torn about whether or not to hold a bar mitzvah ceremony for Zalman. She was struggling with practical and theological issues. “Would it be appropriate to spend so much money on a boy some would think ‘doesn’t get it?’ And it bothered her that it was questionable whether or not Zalman could count in a minyan.

A Beautiful Video Sends a Powerful Message

About half a year before Zalman turned 13, the Diskins approached a good friend and professional filmmaker who noted that there are not many Jewish children with disabilities in the Munich Jewish community. “The filmmakers felt it was important that we film and celebrate Zalman, with all of his imperfections. They felt it would send a strong message.”

The filmmakers, Paula and Daniel Targownik, wanted to make a full-length documentary. After many conversations with the Diskins, the decision was made to keep it shorter. “We didn’t know how Zalman would respond.” The Diskins were ultimately interviewed separately for the film and shared their very different perspectives. “I shared my struggle, why I was upset with G‑d,” reports Chana Diskin. “My husband spoke about how we never signed a contract with Hashem that all would go according to our plan. Both messages are correct—we can struggle, and we can accept.”

The Diskins began to plan the bar mitzvah, hoping that Zalman would be able to learn to wrap tefillin, even though they weren’t sure he would show up at his own bar mitzvah.

As the bar mitzvah video captures, Zalman can exhibit unpredictable and difficult behavior. For example, he started the school year with a period of refusing to get on the bus and with hitting others. When he was younger, he flushed a very expensive cochlear processor down the toilet.

Four months before Zalman’s 13th birthday, the Diskins had an idea—they would have his beloved Singaporean teacher, Lynn, teach Zalman about tefillin. “We know it takes Zalman time to learn things. Lynn had been successful in solving the school bus-refusal issue earlier in the year through creating a step-by-step picture book for getting Zalman on the bus. She offered to make a picture book for tefillin. Although at first I was skeptical, it worked!”

Father and son say the Shema Yisrael prayer.
Father and son say the Shema Yisrael prayer.

Lynn was up for the challenge. Would Zalman rise to the occasion?

Lynn asked Rabbi Diskin to create a video on how to wrap tefillin, which she used as a basis for a step-by-step book for Zalman. She illustrated two boxes—one representing the head and one representing the arm. Zalman learned that each has a home—in the tefillin bag—and does not belong on the floor.

She started on the shel rosh (head) since it was less sensory. Then, she slowly moved to his arm. They practiced with a plastic tefillin prototype since Zalman was likely to throw it. “On the day of the filming, Lynn told my husband that Zalman was ready! I didn’t expect it,” said Chana Diskin.

She knows her son well. “Once he starts a task, he needs to complete it. It was like magic. When they started filming, we pointed to the pictures, and he followed the step-by-step directions, in order. It was like a miracle!”

On Sunday morning, Jan. 21, 2018, members of the Munich Jewish community began to arrive at the bar mitzvah. Pairs of tefillin were on hand for those who wanted to wrap in Zalman’s honor. Transliterated siddurim were available so all would feel comfortable. As the time for the recital of the Shema neared, Zalman was escorted into the service, wearing his tefillin. “He kept them on until va’ed [the final word of the second line after Shema]!” says his very proud mother. Everyone was visibly moved. Then, he got frustrated and left.” The community continued to celebrate with delicious food and music under a tent pitched for the special occasion.

Celebrating the event with the Munich Jewish community.
Celebrating the event with the Munich Jewish community.

Zalman’s bar mitzvah is inspiring and moving. It also beautifully illustrated the many ways to mark becoming bar mitzvah. When most of the Diskin boys became bar mitzvah, they celebrated by delivering a deep discourse from the Rebbe and by reading from the Torah. “My husband is a baal koreh [Torah reader] and wanted his sons to learn to read from the Torah,” reports Chana Diskin. Some sons also led the shacharit (morning) prayer service.

“Since one of our sons was getting married a week later in California, we didn’t have much family at the bar mitzvah. I sent the video to members of our family.”

Her sister, Rivkah Slonim, who is a Chabad emissary at Binghamton University in New York, recalls, “Although the video was without English subtitles, I understood enough to know that this work had potentially a huge audience and could be profoundly impactful.”

The video of Zalman’s bar mitzvah has been hailed as an extraordinarily moving and poignant demonstration that each child and each bar mitzvah is unique. The Diskins and Zalman have come to serve as an important model for families of children with disabilities on their own special journey.

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