Jewish Disability Awareness Month: My Family Loves Winter



By Rachel Maryn

My family loves winter. Just about every weekend between New Year’s and the end of February, you will find us practicing with the Montgomery County Maryland Special Olympics downhill ski team. My husband, Michael, is the head coach and my 23-year-old daughter, Sarah, is an athlete. We find working with Special Olympics rewarding in many ways. For Sarah, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when she was three years old, it has opened up a new world where she has made friends and become more social.

Sarah has always enjoyed being around people, which is most unusual for someone with her diagnosis. She may not necessarily be interacting with those around her, but she definitely likes being in their company. Participating in Jewish life was her first experience in engaging with other people.

PhotoWhen we got Sarah’s diagnosis, everything changed. Many questions went through our heads. Will she ever learn Hebrew? Will she have a Bat Mitzvah? Will she be Confirmed? Will she understand what’s going on as we light the Shabbat candles or celebrate the holidays? We joined Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD in 1989 (a full year before Sarah was born) and had no idea what a fortunate decision that was.

As our children got older and we got more involved in Temple life, it became evident that Sarah, just like her older sister, needed to start Hebrew School. We met with the head of the religious school. Much to our delight, there was a class especially for children with special needs. We observed the class and suddenly realized Sarah’s future. She would learn all about the holidays, have her Bat Mitzvah, be confirmed, and lead a Jewish life. We were almost in tears the first night Sarah sang the Shabbat blessings with the rest of the family.

Fast forward several years when it came time for her Bat Mitzvah. How would we make it happen? She couldn’t read from the Torah or learn the blessings! The head of our religious school and our Rabbi told us that every child who attends the religious school will have a B’nai Mitzvah and Sarah was no exception. They even had a special needs tutor!

Her parashah was Pincus which talks about what happens when a man dies and has no son to inherit his land. The tutor picked out a verse that mentions daughters getting the land and that was to be her portion.  We practiced the blessings and the portion with the tutor weekly. I also sang them with her nightly as she took her bath. It was quite unorthodox, but it worked. The day of her Bat Mitzvah was filled with so much joy and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When it came time for her confirmation, we worked with the Rabbi and the religious school to make that happen also.

When we first started attending services with Sarah, we told the Rabbi that we would take her out if she got too disruptive during services. The Rabbi insisted she stay citing that she had as much of a right to be there as anyone else. To this day, he gives us a smile whenever Sarah gets a bit too enthusiastic. You see, she enjoys belting out the Shema louder than anyone in the sanctuary. Many people who sit near us tell us how contagious her enthusiasm is.

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and I am honored to be able to share our family’s Jewish experience with a child with special needs. Sarah has taught us how to appreciate the little things in life and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

As we prepare to cheer Sarah on to a medal in the Maryland Special Olympics Winter Games, I think back to those earlier days where her future was nothing but questions. Now I realize her life is full of solutions.

Rachel Maryn is a WRJ Board member and WRJ Mid-Atlantic District First Vice President.

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15 Responses to “Jewish Disability Awareness Month: My Family Loves Winter”

  1. Lynn Magid Lazar
    Lynn Magid Lazar Reply March 6, 2014 at 1:08 am

    I know this reply is seriously belated…….but since we now know that Sarah is an actual medal winner – it’s a double WOW! Blessings to all of you for giving us the blessing of a glimpse into your special life!!!

  2. Rachel, I have known you for several years and never heard your story. It is so remarkable and inspiring to all. Sarah is so lucky to have such a loving , supportive family. You are all blessed to have each other.

  3. Sara Charney

    Rachel, your words have given me pause. From following you on FB I see how your family embraces winter and, in particular, skiing and just how meaningful these outings are for you all, especially Sarah. I hope she loves her Winter Games–she is truly a medal winner, with or without the hardware! Good luck to Sarah!!

  4. What a beautiful story Rachel. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sharon K. Benoff

    Hi Rachel
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful words with us today. I grew up with a special needs brother and have an autistic nephew reading your words says much about you, your family and your congregation. True models for all!
    Shabbat Shalom.

  6. Rachel, I loved the blog and it made me teary. As a former Special Education Teacher, I have witnessed how you and Mike and your daughters have created a loving, caring, family environment for Sarah. I hope the blog will inspire other families.

  7. Thank you, Rachel for the beautiful and heartfelt article about your family’s journey with Sarah. You are a wonderful and strong family and are an inspiration to us all. It was also so meaningful to hear how Temple Beth Ami has been involved in this Journey and how important it has been in her life and spiritual development.

  8. I can remember the first time Sarah walked into my classroom at Mpac (remember that infamous day Rachel?!). She was always so happy and sweet and, of course, loved music! I’m so thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to watch her grow up at TBA!

  9. Thank you everyone for your very kind words. Sarah was and continues to be my inspiration. She is a truly happy person, doesn’t judge people and loves life. Something we all should strive for.

  10. Rachel,this blog reflects the joy, love and passion you and your family bring to your lives and the Jewish community. Well said my friend!

  11. fredi Bleeker Franks
    fredi Bleeker Franks Reply February 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Oh, Rachel… you and your family are blessed to belong to such a welcoming congregation, and your lovely daughter Sarah is doubly blessed to have you as her mother.

  12. Rachel,
    You brought tears to my eyes. It has always been a privilege to know you and your remarkable family.

  13. Rachel, I am so touched by your beautiful article. Having known Sarah for so many years, I can attest to the fact that “her Bat Mitzvah was filled with so much joy and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” We are all better for knowing Sarah and your amazing and strong family. XO

  14. Jeanne W. Kahn

    What a wonderful blog, Rachel! You brought tears to my eyes!!

  15. Beautiful article, beautiful family. It is a joy to pray with Sarah and her family.

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