Taking Action to Remember
“I know I’m not the best person socially. I know I’m not. Asperger’s has this tendency to make people who have it not the best people socially. I can only be one person – me.” Danny Klein wrote these words in one of the many journals he kept in high school and college. In April 2015, Danny committed suicide.
At our Na’aseh program last night, Danny’s courageous parents shared these and other words with fifty OJC teens. As part of a learning unit entitled “I am Enough,” we were learning about the inclusion of people with Asperger’s, what is today referred to as people on the spectrum.
Five years ago, Danny attended every Tuesday evening at Na’aseh. Often wearing a cool hat with earflaps that he himself had crocheted, Danny was an active participant. Kind, generous, and social, Danny wanted to be in the midst of whatever was happening. But unless his older brother Jared was at Na’aseh that night, Danny was never actually at the center of things. Danny was never excluded or teased or bullied. He was always tolerated. Last night, Rabbi Craig Scheff told the teens that tolerance is not good enough. We taught the teens of the OJC the value of inclusion.
Danny’s mom Judy explained all about Asperger’s, how it shaped Danny’s life and affected the entire family. Asperger’s is primarily a communication disorder that manifests as having difficulty with the back-and-forth flow of conversation, reading non-verbal cues, and understanding sarcasm. Judy told the teens, “What I saw was a kid who desperately wanted a circle of friends, who had so much love inside to give, who was prepared to be the best friend you would ever want… I saw a kid who held it together all day at school and then came home and asked me to help him figure out what was going on in social situations that he didn’t understand because people didn’t always say what they really meant.”
Judy concluded her remarks, “When I started typing this on my iPad and autocorrect didn’t recognize “Asperger’s” yet, it corrected to ‘as perfect’. Actually, my iPad was right. Danny was just as perfect and as imperfect as every one of us, just another good kid, and every good kid deserves friendship.”
How do caring adults teach teens the necessity of going beyond their safety zones to include others when every teen himself or herself is struggling with finding a place? We offered them the opportunity to listen, ask questions and participate in a variety of learning experiences. The Klein family’s participation was at the core of their ability to feel safe asking and processing the evening.
After Rabbi Scheff and I framed the evening and Judy introduced Danny’s story, I had the privilege of interviewing my friend Zahava Finkel in front of the group. Zahava is a 29-year old woman with Asperger’s who told her story with honesty and humor.
She and I facilitated an activity that she brought to our program. Everyone wrote their name on a piece of masking tape and put it on their shirts. Zahava then read statements that began with “I have been made fun of for…” and finished with “the way I look” or “my athletic ability” or “asking lots of questions when I don’t understand.” If a sentence rang true, a piece of tape was torn off. One teen said, “Every put-down diminishes our sense of who we are.”
In small groups, we considered Danny’s own words, allowing each teen to process the difficulties and triumphs that were Danny’s too short life.
When showed an interview of Danny with his psychologist, Youth Director Sharon Rappaport fielded questions from the teens that were answered by Danny’s parents and brothers. I was reminded of what the evening was really about when one teen asked, “What did you love about Danny?”
For me, the most important take away of the powerful evening is the generous spirits of the Klein family. They are experiencing an unimaginable loss and their grief is palpable. But all of us who love them watch in awe as they channel that sorrow into activism. In Danny’s name, they are determined to make a change in our world so that people who struggle as Danny did will have champions among their peers.
At the close of the night, Judy told our teens, “I know that you are learning about what it means to say ‘I am enough’ but I want you all to know that you aren’t just enough. You are all way more than just enough.”
May Danny’s name always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill