I have to tell you about the boy at the bus stop.
For many families and schools right now, it’s both a stressful, yet hopeful time. It’s Open House season, where schools showcase their academic programs, facilities and student services to prospective families, and where families try and figure out which school will be the right one for their children. Every family has a vision and a preconceived notion of how they hope their child’s academic life will unfold, and partnering with the right school is so important. We all want to set our children and students up for success, to be resilient, to be kind and and independent, and ready for life’s journey. And thank God, more often than not, that’s exactly what happens, even with the invariable challenges along the way.
This finds expression in this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, when God speaks to Avram: “Lech Lcha… Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to a land which I will show you.” So begins the story of the first Jew in the world, Avraham, hearing God’s command and heading on out into the world, leaving behind all he knew, moving forward into the unknown. We know that rabbinic tradition teaches that God’s commandment to Avraham to leave his home is one of the ten tests he is presented with during his life.
And boy, is life ever filled with tests.
Here is where the boy at the bus stop comes back into the frame.
Like many students at the time, when I was a kid, I took the 161 city bus to school and back. With my brother and sisters, I got on the bus on the outskirts of Outremont, took a seat, and settled in for the trip up Van Horne and into Cote St Luc. The bus would fill up as it went, adding students from all the many schools along the route (UTT, Herz, JPPS, Wagar, Maimo, and Hebrew Academy) and I got to know a lot of kids in Montreal that way. There was one kid, however, who stood out for the following reason. The first stop after Decarie, this red-headed kid would wait for the bus on most days. The driver would stop, the kid would get on the bus, pause for a second or two as if deciding to proceed or not, and then with a gentle smile, get off the bus. And the bus would proceed on the route, the boy still standing at the stop. I watched this scene repeat itself for years and years. It was obvious to us that this boy was different, having what today we would call special needs or developmental disabilities.
Years passed, and the routine stopped – he just wasn’t at the stop anymore. I always wondered what happened to him, how his life turned out.
Every time a new stage of development and life approaches for a child, it can be terrifying for a parent. The shift from preschool to kindergarten. Concerns about social development, academic ability, behavioural challenges. Choosing an elementary school. Finding the right high school. Peer pressure. Lack of motivation. Issues with focus. Marks (or lack thereof). Then, hopefully the jump to CEGEP and the right university. The constant worry that they will struggle more than they have to in life, and not have the right opportunities, a meaningful career, or meet the right person to be with.
Now imagine being a parent with a child with significant developmental disabilites. Where does your child go once he or she grows up and finishes the specialized school they went to with all sorts of supports? There’s no university on the horizon, there is no traditional career path. How will they support themselves, gain independence and move forward in the next chapter in their lives?
Enter the Atelier JEM Workshop. This organization, the jewel in the crown of Montreal’s Jewish community, is an amazing, wondrous place. For more than half a century, adults from all backgrounds with special needs have found a place to be productive and earn a living, while providing a valuable and highly competitive service for Montreal businesses in all sectors. Workers, who earn a minimum wage salary, engage in a variety of jobs including packaging and assembly work, light machine operation, labelling, sorting and much more. Each job is adapted to meet the needs and special abilities of the individual employee.
For the last number of years, our grade 6 students have been fortunate to go and visit the JEM Workshop, and learn about the special place that it is. The field trip to the JEM workshop was this week. At Hebrew Foundation School, we want our students to learn about those who are different, we want our students to learn about true chesed, and we want them to learn about community and family. A field trip to the JEM Workshop is all of that and more. I had a meeting in town on Wednesday, and afterwards, I met up with the grade 6 group at the workshop. It was so special to be a part of their experience. The students were enthralled to be there, and they soaked up the entire experience.
The boy from the bus stop works there now. He’s been there for years. He’s my age. You see, he got on the bus. He has a purpose in life and a destination to go to every day.
I went up to him and introduced myself, I was so humbled to be in his presence. I told him I remembered him from our 161 days. His smile got bigger. He told me his name is Yossi. My smile got bigger. I told him my son’s name is Yossi. We both could not stop smiling.
Life can be hard. Growing up is not always easy. But with a loving family, a supportive school and an embracing community, everyone gets to hear God’s voice, find purpose, go out into the world… everyone gets to lech l’cha.
I invite you to come to the Hebrew Foundation School Open House on Wednesday, November 27 at 7 PM. Come and see how we help children become who they are meant to be. Come and learn how community is integral to the academic, and social and emotional success of your children.
Shabbat Shalom Yossi! Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!
Mar Abba, Head of School