Neurodiversity in Judaism
by Avram / DWTN
*Note: this essay was dictated by Dylan Rothbein and recorded by Avram Mlotek.
I was born in Manhattan and have lived around New York City my entire life. I was raised in residential treatment centers for people with developmental disabilities since I myself am on the Autism spectrum though while there was undiagnosed. My parents are special education teachers and my older brother Yakov is also severely Autistic.
We grew up going to a Conservative synagogue. One of my most painful memories is being thrown out of synagogue because of my brother’s Autistic outbursts. We were asked to leave. I can’t tell you how hurtful that was. At home, we celebrated all the Jewish holidays, except for Purim because I have a crippling fear of costumes.
I was selectively mute for over five years. One of the most challenging parts about growing up was being in school and not being able to read or write like the other kids. I have all three forms of dyslexia and my Aspergers went undiagnosed till I was 17. People didn’t know how to be around me.
When I was mute, someone played Tommy for me, and I fell in love with rock n roll. A week before my 13th birthday, I started playing the guitar and when I was 16 I started writing songs. I was even featured in a film called “Keep the change” where I played the guitar. When I played the guitar, I found my voice. I was influenced by rock n roll and the power of folk music and came to the point where I wanted to become the Bob Dylan of Autism.
When I turned 18, I knew of people who went on Birthright and I went on a Birthright trip for Autistic people. I think that is something to be celebrated: that we can make the holy land accessible to everyone. I realized on that trip that through rituals I can connect to community and to people. I bought tefillin then and was interested in wrapping tefillin but was never able to find a Jewish community I was comfortable in. I went to different community colleges and visited private university Hillels but never felt at home.
I am now taking classes at Hunter College where I serve as the president of the Disabilities Club there. Because of my disability, though, I will not be able to get a college degree so I have a type of non-matriculated status now. I am able to take music classes and that is great.
Base is the first place in the Jewish community where I have been accepted, where I have been embraced as an equal. I believe as a person with disability, I’m not a rationalization for anyone’s charity, I’m an equal contributor to society, and am so at Base, I’m respected and accommodated.
One of the most symbolic things was when I went to a Friday night meal at Base and I was given special food. That was really important to me, because no one has ever gone out of their way in that respect. I have gone to the Base Open Mics, Torah Study, Holocaust Commemoration and other events. And so I see the potential in Base and how it could grow and believe it is a step forward for the Jewish community and believe it shows us the power to include people.
Dylan Rothbein is a musician, filmmaker and disability rights activist. He is a student at Hunter College and travels widely to speak up for disability rights in the Jewish community and broader world.