By Janet Gunner
Now well into my seventh decade, I find myself reflecting on my life as a journey. I’m old enough where I’ve lost my beloved parents, and my husband and I have three grown children and a granddaughter. I have experienced loss and crisis as well as great joy. I know I am not unique in this respect. Yet, when suffering loss or facing enormous challenges as the mother of my 30-year-old son Daniel with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, and a seizure disorder, I have often felt alone, but have also have felt part of the collective journey with my Buffalo Jewish community. I think that is why the Jewish narrative of the communal journey of B’nai Yisrael resonates so strongly with me. My personal journey is amid the larger journey of community, in some ways like the Israelites’ journey.
In this week’s Torah portion (parashah) Eikev Moses continues his second address to the Israelites using a historical recap of their journey to underscore the principles that make up the covenant between God and the People. Moses tells them they must faithfully observe all the laws set forth so they will thrive in the Land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses said on this generational journey: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your heart whether you would keep His Commandments or not.”
Twenty years ago, a mother of a 50-year daughter with intellectual and developmental disabilities, expressed her profound regret at her daughter’s funeral that her daughter did not have the opportunity to live in a local group home where she could celebrate her Jewish heritage. We learned there were no group homes in the Buffalo area where a Jewish person with developmental disabilities would be able to live a Jewish way of life with weekly Shabbat and holiday celebration and Jewish learning and experiences both in the home and in the community. The Jewish Community Group Homes Task Force formed in 2004 with other families also with children with developmental disabilities. We were all discovering that we were not alone. Eikev contains the second paragraph of the Shema instructing that we are to teach Torah to our children as a Jewish value and obligation. Therefore, we knew this obligation continues and that our adult children with disabilities would need a group home environment with Jewish culture, values, and traditions. Five Jewish women interested in establishing the first culturally sensitive group home with a Jewish environment emerged and in 2007 this remarkable home opened. Over these past 16 years the eight women who have lived in this meaningful home have been embraced and loved by the Jewish community with the Temple Beth Tzedek Lifelong Learning, Outstretched Arm and Chaverim programs and the Buffalo Jewish Federation Miriam’s Well program, as well as sukkah building with Hillel and other synagogue and Jewish agency and community member engagement.
Now we are facing the incredibly challenging task of establishing a similar home for Daniel and five of his male friends in the Jewish community ages 23 to 33. Facing a new set of government regulations and protocols we have been moving forward with painstaking steps over many years (hopefully not 40!). In July 2022 we rejoiced when the administering state agency approved the concept of the Men’s Home based on Jewish Buffalo’s flourishing enduring relationship with the Women’s Home and the future Men’s Home families. One year later, the community, with Rob Goldberg at the helm and supportive Jewish community leaders and volunteers, continues to do everything possible to finally achieve the Men’s Home.
Rashi said that Moshe’s exhortation in Eikev for the Israelites to
Janet Gunner is a retired attorney, co-chair of Temple Beth Tzedek Kesher Inclusion, past president of Temple Beth Tzedek, coordinator of the Jewish Community Inclusion Task Force, proud mother and grandmother and loves to leyn Torah.