Birthright exceeds expections for Mallory Weinstein as told by Barb Gelb

September 2, 2019

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“It was so amazing to pray today at the Western Wall!!! I’ve never been to the western wall it was really special to see so many people come around today and pray.” —Mallory Weinstein on Instagram

“It was so amazing to pray today at the Western Wall!!! I’ve never been to the western wall it was really special to see so many people come around today and pray.” —Mallory Weinstein on Instagram

If you ever asked my husband Kenny or me if his daughter Mallory would go on a Birthright Israel program—without her family – we would have just laughed and shrugged it off. We wouldn’t even dare to dream such a thing.

Mallory has Fragile X syndrome which affects her emotions and processing of messages. When set off, this complicated condition compromises a range of interactions including her ability to create a Jewish community of friends. Kenny wanted more for his only daughter and I felt deeply for them both.

I’m a social worker and professional educator who worked with children with special needs. I have three children who grew up in Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu enabling me to figure out some next steps for Mal. But even with my warrior maternal instincts and professional resourcefulness, I hit a wall. My efforts could take us only so far.

Our Jewish community rallied to embrace Mallory in a way that fills me with hope for days. Every person with special needs is different. The “one size fits all” solution is a myth and I’m eternally grateful to people in this community who get how special someone like Mallory really is. So many people contributed to opening our eyes to new possibilities and have partnered with us to help her live with more joy and purpose.

Nothing happens overnight; this plan to send Mal to Israel took a lot longer than seven days and seven nights to create.

Let’s go back to her Bat Mitzvah at Beth El Temple, when Cantor Pilch challenged her to do the work while making her shine. Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg stepped up next with her “we’ll make it work” attitude, and with Gail Bachman, then principal of the temple’s Religious School, made a home for Mal as an Ohef Sholom Temple volunteer helper. Mal showed up for this opportunity with her signature enthusiasm and it paid off. This led to a stipend for her work, recognition for her photography, and a new sense of confidence.

I contacted her next champion, Joel Charnick a camp director I was connected to through my kids. Joel made a space for her at Camp JCA Shalom Malibu where she became camp photographer.

When we reached out to David Abraham, CEO at Beth Sholom Village, another piece of the Jewish puzzle fell into place with the ‘we will make it work’ spirit. She volunteers at BSV and two other senior centers, to keep her engaged and in constant interaction with people.

Things continued to fall into place when I moved here from Los Angeles and began working at the Sandler Family Campus. Isolation is the biggest challenge for anyone, but especially someone like Mal. My fear of its impact on her well-being (and ours) gave me the idea to create yet another community of friends. For the past 18 months, she’s been coming to the JCC after her volunteer work, to get in good shape physically, smile at everyone, and talk to anyone she can. She’s also learned how not to disturb people at work, so she has a short conversation and moves on. Whether it’s Ray the trainer, Darrel at the front desk, or Patty in the Federation office, these people, along with Rabbi Roz, Joel Charnick, and David Abraham, make her feel at home, help her build on each success and made Birthright Israel a reality.

Then there’s Carly Glickman, outreach manager for the Federation and one of the people who encounters Mallory daily. Her move was brilliant and game-changing. She told me about Birthright Israel for people with disabilities, and put us in touch with her connections, a huge source of help during the application process.

Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu. If only did people say: ‘we will make it work’ while opening doors for her to contribute to their communities and feel valued and included. That would have been enough. If only Mallory got a chance to go to Israel on Birthright, where she felt safe and completely comfortable discovering falafel, praying at the Western Wall, and riding camels with people who allowed her to be herself. That would have been enough.

The report back to us after the trip: “She was fun all the time and everyone loved her.”

When we thank Rabbi Roz, Gail, Joel and David, they all say, “she makes us better.”

Dayenu.

Sometimes you just have to suspend disbelief.

Kenny and I couldn’t see all the possibilities despite being totally invested and fighting on her behalf every day. This community is a model for what can be. My hope is that every city will be inspired to find a concierge/facilitator (outside of the family) to help Jewish kids with special needs get connected. I know that it’s really hard to provide services that will work for each individual, but just think of Mallory’s transformation when our Jewish community gave the word birthright old meaning.

Lisa Richmon

Letter to the Editor