Rabbi, autistic son open eyes, hearts at S.F. synagogue

Some said they had never seen a room full of children sit so quietly or watch so raptly. This rare state of affairs occurred on Jan. 26, when Jacob Artson spoke to students at a San Francisco congregation about growing up autistic.

Jacob composed his talk in advance on an iPad, and his mother read it. Then he took questions. The audience of 50-plus students  — from preschoolers through teens — watched as his answers appeared on a screen.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

“How much Hebrew do you know?” a teen girl asked.

“I had a bar mitzvah and studied very hard,” he typed out.

A 5-year-old boy asked, “Why are you autistic?”

“I was made this way to teach other people about God.”

Older students told Jacob, 21, about their creative and fundraising projects. Letters appeared on the screen as he typed: “A-w-e-s-o-m-e.”

Artson and his father, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, were at Congregation Sherith Israel to address inclusion in the Jewish community — an apt topic anytime, but especially going into Jewish Disability Awareness Month in February.

The rabbi, a San Francisco native, is the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He spoke during Shabbat services on Jan. 24, then took questions during dinner afterward.

Artson has long been an effective voice for inclusion in Jewish life.

Approaching his talk last week, which was titled “Learning Life Wisdom from My Autistic Son,” Artson applauded the fact that even if the Jewish community has been slow to include Jews with various challenges into congregational life, at least today “people are talking” about the issue.

Jacob Artson (center) types out his answers to questions at Congregation Sherith Israel.

Jacob is a twin. As infants, he and his sister, Shira, began standing, walking and climbing stairs at the same time. But while Shira’s growth surged, Jacob retreated to a private place; he was nonverbal for the first seven years of his life, before it was discovered he could communicate through typing.

“We had to leave several schools,” the rabbi said.

Artson spoke about “the look” — the stern face others would make when Jacob would clap, sing or move about during quiet parts of a service. Sometimes he would take Jacob outside, but that became increasingly unnecessary as Jacob absorbed the message that there are moments in a service in which people need quiet.

He said that his son helped him to “let go of the future.”

“The bottom line is, Jacob is a huge blessing to me,” Artson said. “I love him in his totality.”

Artson’s Shabbat talk at Sherith Israel was well received.

“He spoke very powerfully,” said member Helen Luey, a social worker who started the shul’s inclusion task force. “He is just an  extraordinary communicator. Charismatic, genuine and at times funny.”

Sherith Israel has embraced inclusion, said Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, with the task force moving forward on making the synagogue accessible: ramps, listening devices, signs, large-print prayerbooks.

 For Jews, coming to grips with differences and disabilities requires a clear-eyed look at Jewish immigration, Artson said — arriving in America wanting to fit in, dreading standing out.

“I would say, give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “People have good will and they mean well. I’ve found, in every denomination, people often think setting up a program is the solution, when in fact it is just the beginning. We need a sea change of attitude.”