In My Own Words: Finding a photograph

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

I recently discovered a photograph of my younger brother Larry that I’d never seen before. For those of you who don’t know, Larry, who died in 2010, was developmentally disabled. His specific type of disability is known as Down syndrome, although other words were used in the past before changing times made us more careful about how we label people. The photos I was looking through were not family photos, so I didn’t expect to see his face peeking out from behind several other people. I did recognize his grin right away. It was a real gift to get this unexpected glimpse of him.
It was funny to find the photo just before Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which took place in February. Larry knew he was Jewish – just say Jewish and he would point to himself and say, “Me” – but I don’t think he understood what that meant. This was someone who proudly hugged his box of matzah, stood with us to light Hanukkah candles and sang “Eyn Kelohanu” for every holiday, but who also loved Santa Claus so much he had a Santa costume he wore most of December and who, one year, requested that his birthday cake have a picture of Ho Ho Ho (as he called him) as the decoration.
Larry’s Jewishness came from several sources, in addition to our family: at one point, Beth David Synagogue had a youth group that arranged programs for those with developmental disabilities. Broome Developmental Center also had holiday gatherings for several Jewish holidays, which were organized by the local Jewish community. That’s when Larry first had his own rabbi, the late Rabbi Jacob Hurwitz. Larry loved attending events at both places.
I never planned to do rabbinic work locally with the developmentally disabled community because I worried Larry wouldn’t understand what that meant in terms of our relationship. However, he had no problem telling the difference between when I was the rabbi and when I was his sister. He enjoyed the programs I led, whether it was a holiday celebration at the Center or a visit to Temple Concord’s sukkah.
Larry also enjoyed the times he took part in local Jewish community celebrations. I remember how much he enjoyed the Purim spiel we took him to one year. My father was ready to leave long before Larry. In fact, when partway through, I asked him if he wanted to go, he said, “No.” He laughed and had a wonderful time – at the dinner, the service and the spiel.
In my chaplaincy work, I still meet people who knew Larry. It’s wonderful to hear them talk about him. We laugh over his terms of endearment – for example, cow or “freap” – but they also mention how he could tell when they were sad and the ways he tried to make them feel better. Hearing that is wonderful, just like finding that photo was. What Larry taught my family is that having developmental disabilities doesn’t limit your capacity to love or your ability to bring joy to others.