Home > Family, Judaism > Redefining Success

Redefining Success

My six-year-old son had a birthday party today… for the first time since he was 3.

Oh, we’ve celebrated his last 2 birthdays with him. We’ve taken him out dinner, gotten him presents. But he hasn’t been in a place where he could handle having a lot of friends come over. In fact, he wasn’t even really in a place where he had friends.

Rami has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning Autism. He is very high functioning – he makes eye contact, has high level conversations, and spends the majority of his day in a mainstream kindergarten classroom. If you met Rami, he would stike you as a very bright, very articulate six-year-old who talks a lot. But Rami also has difficulty with emotional self-regulation, sensory overload, unexpected changes, and making social connections. He has been known lock up in refusal mode when he doesn’t get his way, or when he is surprised by something (even something he likes). And even when he is not in tantrum mode, Rami is not quiet. His sensory issues make him want to fill silence with noise. He has trouble reading social situations (including things like when he is supposed to be calm). He moves around, fidgets and plays with things, asks a thousand questions, and disrupts things that he doesn’t particularly like. (And for all that we try to prevent it, our younger boys’ behavior often looks like Rami’s, since he is their big brother.)

Rami’s difficulties are such that we have not really been able to take him, or our other boys, to Shabbat services for about the last 3 years. (My being on the bima doesn’t help an already tough situation.) This has been incredibly painful for Shoshi and me, because Kabbalat Shabbat is so special to us. We met over leading services for our NFTY group; we have been camp songleaders together, and led services for youth groups and college groups; we have been a part of and/or founders of several small, creative, independent minyanim. We love Shabbat davenning, and not being able to share it with our family hurts in a very real way.

So last month was a good month. Over the course of the year, Rami has worked very hard on his flexibility, on dealing with situations that are beyond his control, on using his words when he is uncomfortable or confused. And last month, for the first time, he and his brother came to Shabbat services. They started in babysitting, and Shoshi brought each of them – individually – for about 10 minutes of the services. They sat and participated, and then went back to babysitting. We were almost in tears.

This certainly wasn’t my picture of what our family’s religious life would look like. I always assumed my kids would sit in the front row, singing their hearts out and breaking congregants’ hearts. But they had other plans. The amazing thing is that from where I’m sitting now, this looks an awful lot like success.  I’m not necessarily satisfied to stay right here, but I’m happy that we made it this far.

There is a parallel between that Shabbat service success and today’s birthday party success. For the first time, Rami invited over 5 friends. (He has 5 friends!) They played in the back yard, drew pictures together, ate cake and ice cream, and had a good time. It was a far cry from his brothers’ loud, high-energy parties, but for a kid who doesn’t even really ever have playdates, this was success.

Proverbs 22:6 reads, “Teach a child in the manner that is appropriate to him, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Jewish tradition understands that people learn in different ways, and have different abilities and needs. (In fact, this passage is one of the origins of the Pesach tradition of the Four Children, which encourages us to answer different children’s questions in different ways.) Sometimes we have to rethink the way we teach our kids so that they can be successful on their own terms. And sometimes we have to redefine what we mean by success.
  1. Nancy Schick
    March 14, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    This is great sharing, Micah. My own grandchild is challenged in similar ways as your Rami…. so I certainly understand the challenges you and Shoshi face. Kudos to you both! There is one synagogue in Columbus that has special Shabbat service for challenged kids and it is a blessing for their parents being able to sit with them and share Shabbat with them. Their faces lighten up and oh they smile…..

  2. Daniel
    March 14, 2010 at 9:53 pm


    And haaaapy biiiiiiiiiiiirrrrthday to Rami! (It’s hard to sing in a comment, but I tried)

  3. March 15, 2010 at 4:18 am

    Micah, The depth of your compassion and understanding astounds me. I wish that I could help other teachers and parents understand, and open their hearts, to others that may be entirely unlike them. I like to think of it as “humanizing education” in the 21st century. Thanks again for your touching thughts and reminders. Go Rami and family!! You are a very special family and we’re lucky to count you among our friends!!

  4. John David Kling
    March 15, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Rabbi Streiffer – Thanks for sharing. We should all remember that success comes in many shapes and sizes. And even one true friend is a great blessing.

  5. martha
    March 15, 2010 at 9:44 am


  6. March 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s definitely a learning experience. They teach us as much as we teach them!

  7. faith
    March 16, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    micah — you rock!!!!

  8. April 28, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    This is a wonderful portrait of the possible. I am inspired by it.

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