Sunday, December 12, 2010

2010, in Lior's own words

It's been a very long time since I've written - not for lack of developments with Praying with Lior, but for various personal ones - I got married, moved to Philadelphia, and had a child in the last year and a half. There are a lot of wonderful things about each, but an additional bonus is getting to see more of Lior.

Lior is 19 1/2 now, and itching to be grown up. His parents are looking into various academic and residential opportunities for him post-high school. And he is finishing up school, participating in Special Olympics and synagogue youth group, and thinking about the moving on. One of the markers of his "graduating" from childhood was his synagogue confirmation. In many synagogues, confirmation signifies the end of formal Jewish education. Only two young adults in Lior's synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, elected to study for confirmation classes this year, and Lior was one. Once again, he stood at the pulpit of his shul, and addressed the community. His speech echoed the one we heard at his Bar Mitzvah, but it has a fresh maturity. Here's the text, followed by images of Lior winning the Grand Prixe at the International Disability Film Festival in Moscow.

Shabbat Shalom, I am very happy to be here today.

I am happy that I get to be confirmed. Being Jewish is important to me because that is the way I stay connected to God. Davening is the way I stay connected to God. As I said at my bar mitzvah, I love davening because I feel happy and excited. It makes a difference to pray because I feel different when I talk to God. When I do not talk to God I feel lonely. If I talk to God, I feel happy and I can enjoy myself. Sometimes I use words from the prayer book. Other times I use my own words. There are so many things to be grateful for. I am thankful for my family and for the things I have in my life.

I enjoy the holidays because we get to celebrate and to sing a lot. I especially like Sukkoth because of eating in the sukkah and the celebration of Simhat Torah.

I am happy to be at Mishkan, I like being in the Teen Group because we get to have good discussions, do activities, projects and get to go on retreat at Camp JRF. This is my fifth year being in the Food for Thought class, I love cooking and Gabbi’s recipes.

I love the singing at Mishkan. I feel very comfortable here. This is my community, my shul. I feel that people at Mishkan like having me here. I am happy that I became an official member of Mishkan on the day of my Bar Mitzvah. I am just so happy that I feel loved here.

I want to thank Gabbi for the teen group and food for thought class. I want to thank Rabbi Linda for the Teen leadership seminar and for helping me to prepare the service.

This week is the parsha of bersheit. It is the parsha about the creation of the world. We learn that everyone is created in God’s image. That makes everybody equal -- even if we have different beliefs. There are different religions. There are Jews, Christians Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. Muslims, for example, celebrate Ramadan. Christians celebrate Christmas. Jews celebrate our own holidays. We can appreciate each other’s holidays. My family even went with Buddhists to celebrate the Dali Lama’s birthday when we were in India. We have different beliefs and religions, and we are all equal. We can all speak to God in different ways.

Everybody is created in God’s image. Each person has different abilities and talents that we offer the world. We each have our own blessings that we bring to the community. I bring to Mishkan my love, drumming, enthusiasm for davening . talking to people and being friendly. I hope to bring these to Mishkan for many more years.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Special Olympics World Winter Games 2009

Lior with Vice President Joe Biden & Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver

Lior dancing with the mascot!

Lior and Yoni at the Figure Skating competition

Lior and Diane Hough dancing to YMCA!

Lior, Yoni and Ilana answering questions after the successful screening of Praying with Lior

Lior and Yoni answering questions

Lior signing autographs :)

Last month, Lior, Yoni and I had the tremendous honor of attending the Special Olympics Intl World Winter Games. We were delighted, and humbled by the extraordinary display of athleticism and talent – by 2,000 athletes from nearly 100 countries.

Overall, I was stunned by the grand scale demonstration of exemplary qualities and contributions by people who are ordinarily dismissed. In magnificent style, in countries all over the world, and for the last 40 years, the Special Olympics has been making the same statement as Praying with Lior: everyone has something to offer, and some people are lucky enough to be brilliant. Lior is a radiant davener, and Russia’s Irina Nikitina has awe-inspiring speed skating times, Finland’s Jesse Honkonen’s slalom skills makes one’s jaw drop.

We had an incredible time. Lior and Yoni hung out with Vice President Joe Biden, figure skating champion Michelle Kwan, and our beloved friend and Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. We watched athletes that took our breath away, and some that were just starting in their sports, courageously embracing the challenge.

We were hosted by effusive powerhouse and Boise local Dianne Hough, who shepherded us to great seats, delicious meals, and meaningful moments. Actually, the most meaningful moments were the spontaneous ones. We visited Russian athlete Alexander Rogov, who sliced open his tendon while speed skating, but finished the race for the sake of his team. Alexander earned an honorary gold medal.

Lior’s drumming in the hotel lobby attracted a crowd, including the head of the Uzbeki delegation. Pretty soon, he and Lior were having a “drum off,” exchanging drumming techniques. A local musician serenaded Lior, and he responded with his own drum serenade.

We screened the film, and Lior, Yoni and I answered questions. It was a delightful, international audience.

Perhaps the most moving part of the Special Olympics was Boise itself. Overnight, Boise was transformed, temporarily housing the highest per-person proportion of people with cognitive disabilities in the world. Boise was the most gracious host! It’s a Special Olympics custom to exchange pins, which athletes attach to their badge straps. Some people walk by with over 50, advertising international towns and banks and barbershops. At a downtown restaurant, a Boise cop leaned over and handed Lior a pin from the Boise Police Department.

And the scarves! When I first descended from the plane, I was greeted by several people wearing skinny blue and white scarves of different patterns. Soon, I saw those blue and white scarves were everywhere. Boise Special Olympics had put the call out to local knitting groups, asking volunteers to knit up donated blue and white yarn. They hoped for 5000 scarves, to warm all the athletes and coaches. Instead, they received over 55,000, from all over the world. The experience of the Boise Special Olympics was like living in a different world, a world where everyone is included, accepted, celebrated, befriended.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I’ve just returned from 17 days in Israel, screening Praying with Lior in four cities. Even though we’ve had hundreds of successful screenings here in the US, I was nervous. First of all, the phenomenon of “hippie Jews” – the kind of liberal, egalitarian, musical community Lior belongs to – isn’t well known in Israel. Second, for financial reasons, the movie wasn’t subtitled in Hebrew.

The great news is that Israelis do “get” Lior, and he plays as charmingly to an Israeli audience as to an American one. After each screening, countless audience members expressed gratitude for the experience of “getting to know” Lior. And while there were plenty of questions about the Reconstructionist community featured in the film, there was a sensitivity to disability, its challenges and its gifts, perhaps deeper than what I’ve experienced in the United States.

Beth Steinberg, an American woman who moved to Israel two years ago with her family, including her son Akiva who has Down syndrome, concurred with my sense that Israel has a greater level of tolerance, and more services, when it comes to children with disabilities. (Except in the summer. Beth and Miriam Avraham created Camp Shutaf, to provide a summer camp experience for children with disabilities. Based on the Ramah model, the program expanded from 10 children its first summer to 40 this past summer, and 25% of the campers are neurotypical. Shutaf is open to children of all abilities, and all manner of religious observance. The Jerusalem screening was a fundraiser for Shutaf, with a largely American audience.)

The lack of Hebrew subtitles was an issue. At the Haifa International Film Festival, there was silence where I’m used to hearing laughs and gasps. The questions following the screening made it clear they understood the film, but the audience had to work hard to take in the English, and were probably afraid a laugh would obscure the next line.

In Ra’anana, we had a sold-out screening. The audience, largely South African, generously offered up every laugh. The screening was sponsored by Beit Issie Shapiro, ( an extraordinary rehabilitation center/ therapeutic daycare/ professional research and training center for people with disabilities. I was profoundly impressed by the state-of-the-art technology, (you must, at least once in your life, see a Snoezelen Room), the dental clinic, recreation centers, and counseling programs – all housed at Beit Issie, serving several thousand people, and presided over by the indomitable Naomi Stuchiner.

A truly mixed audience, Israeli and American, screened the film at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque. An excellent Q &A session transcended questions about the film itself, and became a sort of Israeli-American dialogue about notions of community, prayer, and inclusion. This chemistry was due, in no small part, to the screening’s sponsor, Beit Tefila Israeli, a liberal egalitarian synagogue in Tel Aviv with ties to New York’s Bnai Jeshurun and Buenos Aires’ Beit El. Check out

In Israel I met countless disability activists, parents of children with disabilities, and organization leaders who are trailblazing. More about them in the next installment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I never thought I’d have enough to say to blog. But I never counted on the journey of the past five years with Praying with Lior.

I made this film because I fell in love with Lior, his family, and his community. And along the way I learned about disability, about inclusion, and the extent of our society’s loss due to widespread exclusion of people with disabilities. I like to say that I’ve become an “accidental activist,” and I truly feel privileged to have been the medium through which Lior’s story got told. But what’s been extraordinary, and the reason for this blog, is seeing the incredible efforts that individuals and communities across the country are making on behalf of inclusion. This blog is an attempt to share some of the amazing things I’ve seen, to salute these efforts and to offer a model to be duplicated.

I’ve just come back from Dallas, which is exploding on behalf of special needs. It’s a story I’ve seen many times before, but I’ve never seen it happen so fast.

In this case, a family who were 5th generation synagogue members were told that their son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, couldn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. Louis Zweig, David’s father was appalled. But he never considered looking for a new shul, because “I’d been in those same seats on the high holidays since I was born.”

When Louis decided to make sure David had a Bar Mitzvah, he also kindled the spark that led to the event I keynoted. The event was the kickoff of the Special Needs Initiative, which marks a city-wide effort on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas to respond to the needs of people with disabilities.

The Zweigs co-founded a foundation called the Gladys Golman/Faye Dallen Education fund, that provided the training of 200 religious, day and preschool school teachers to work with children with disabilities. At the event, federation announced, and introduced, their first part-time special needs coordinator, Wendy Narzem. The Gladys Golman/Faye Dallen Education Fund is also funding a federation library collection of books on special needs.

The kickoff welcomed 600 people in two movie theaters. Under the tireless effort of the Jewish Education Department’s Assistant Director Melissa Bernstein, the Federation partnered with local agencies such as, Jewish Family Service, the JCC, residential facilities for adults with special needs, schools, congregations an many others. Materials were shared, funds were raised, and a huge, multi-faith, mutli-generational audience left the event charged and encouraged. After having the experience of “attending” Lior’s Bar Mitzvah, Dallas has a shared vision, which they will adapt and shape in their own image, of what is possible.