By Sarah Beletz
One of the most important Jewish values we’re taught is to advocate for people who need help and justice. As a teen, I’m a social advocate for many causes, including platforms for disabled people like me. I’ve long been an advocate for people who need help even before I realized that I, too, needed a champion. Being an advocate isn’t always comfortable; sometimes it means going against authority. When I was in middle school, there was a student in my class who stood up and said he was going to be sick. The teacher ignored him and did not address it seriously. To me, he looked like he was going to be sick, but she said it was going to be fine. I stood up, despite the teacher saying no, and took him to the nurse myself.
I live in Washington, DC, and protest marches are often a good way to advocate for important causes in my community. I’ve marched for the environment, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, and for safe schools and gun safety. However, marching and being in large crowds can be hard if you have a disability. I have friends who are physically disabled, but they are still advocates and marchers. I know people who are confined to wheelchairs; they are marchers as well. I have autism and can become unexpectedly overwhelmed and panicky. I remember one march where I had a total meltdown. I was stuck in the middle of a huge crowd, it was pouring rain, and I was too tired to go on. Still, when a cause arises, we do our best to keep marching.
There are things that organizations can do to help people like me advocate better for ourselves and be better advocates for others who need help. As a member of BBYO, our organization supported the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC that was organized by the teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School whose friends had been killed in a mass shooting. I marched alongside BBYO, Hillel International, and other Jewish organizations. Some of my friends from my BBYO chapter were there, and I also brought along a friend from school and two of our moms. We worried about what we would do if we couldn’t handle the march, or if we felt tired or panicked. When we were at the hotel before the walk, we received instructions and had water and snacks – and march leaders told us that if we ever got tired or overwhelmed, we could stop at a specific location and rest (and they gave us directions on how to get there). This location was the Jewish Federation Building – and it was a good thing it was provided for us. My disabled friends became tired quickly, and I also felt overwhelmed and panicked at one point. We were able to get to a place with plenty of water, soda, snacks and a tv to watch the rest of the march. If you know you have somewhere to go that’s safe and quiet, or someone to talk to and a way to get there, it’s the small things that can go a long way and make a big difference.
At my high school, they use a room in the counselling area for kids who are stressed or need a quiet place. Our counselors and school psychologists are available, but even more importantly, we know there’s a space we can go to relax. The room is amazing. – it’s a sanctuary for people like me. You can sleep, color, play with one of those tiny sand boxes, kinetic sand, and stress balls. It’s very helpful.
At BBYO International Convention in Denver, we also had a room like this. In fact, it was called “The Quiet Room.” We strive to always be inclusive and we’re always learning more. If you have ideas on how to help us, let us know by reaching out to our Director of Inclusion, Arielle Handel at [email protected].
Sarah Beletz is a senior in high school based in Arlington, Virginia. She is a member of the Ohr Chadash chapter in BBYO’s Northern Region East: Northern Virginia Council.