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Neurodiversity: The Key to Creating a More Promising Jewish Future
Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways.
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In 1998, Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities,” such as people with autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities.1
Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways. There is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving; and differences are not viewed as deficits.2
Perhaps neurodiversity can also be applied to our Jewish world, one that is plagued by increasingly polarizing attitudes between secular Jews and religious Jews, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, right-leaning Jews and left-leaning Jews, et cetera.
If we accept that people experience and interact with Judaism in many different ways, and that there is no one “right” way of being and doing Jewish, we can profoundly enhance the Jewish story and create a more promising Jewish future.
Here are four impactful approaches to consider:
1) Acknowledge that each person has different needs, circumstances, and timelines.
The human experience is varied and circumstantial, beginning from our earliest years and reappearing as we age, both consciously and subconsciously. Plus, we’re all exposed to different things at different points in life, which is why we see so much Jewish late blooming.
As a result, each of us has different needs, and these needs influence why, how, and what we take from Judaism. Some people need a spiritual or religious outlet, while others benefit more from a cultural or nationalist one. The beautiful thing about Judaism is that it has so much to offer, but this also creates subgroups within the Jewish world that tend to divide us more than putting a positive spotlight on Jewish diversity.
Differences among Jews can also be generational. For example, those born right after the Holocaust don’t typically look at the Jewish world in the same ways that millennials and other younger generations do. Or a Jew who immigrated to Israel just before or after the State was founded probably feels differently about the country compared to a sabra (someone born in Israel) birthed in the last 50 years.
But just because differences exist doesn’t means we need to stay walled up in our different camps! I find that engaging in authentic conversations by asking tons of questions leaves me feeling closer to people who I might otherwise perceive as different than me; questions such as:
Why do you think/feel/live that way?
How did you come to this conclusion?
What happened in your life that led you to think/feel/live this way?
Who and what have influenced your thoughts/opinions about this? How so?
What are some things I should learn more about the way you think/feel/live?
2) Use an effective communication style.
It’s easy to group people together and generalize. And sometimes, generalizing is perfectly fine, but more often than not, it’s not. Not everyone is all good or all bad. It’s okay to agree with the same person on some things and disagree on others.
Why, then, do so many of us tend to write off people entirely just because we don’t agree with a few things about them?
Or, maybe the person you’re disagreeing with simply was never exposed to your knowledge, viewpoint, opinion, or way of life, so they haven’t had an opportunity to think, feel, or live the way you do. Now, thanks to you, it’s on their radar — so long as you communicate it to them clearly, respectfully, and warmly. As an ex-girlfriend taught me:
You attract bees with honey, not with vinegar.
When talking about Judaism, Jews, and Jewish topics, I try to stay away from sarcasm, euphemisms, and implied messages. If I have a problem with something or someone, I am very specific about the problem and the person or group of people. I try to break things down to first principles — which removes the impurity of assumptions, conventions, and connotations — rather than reasoning by analogy, hear-say, vanity, et cetera.
“Good arguments help us recognize complexity where we once say simplicity,” said Adam Grant, an international bestselling author and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “The ultimate purpose of debate is not to produce consensus. It’s to promote critical thinking.”
3) Don’t make assumptions.
Are you aware that so much of what we tell ourselves is just assumptions? One assumption leads to another; we jump to conclusions; and we take our assumptions so very seriously, and so very personally. Then we start gossiping to help us justify our assumptions, and a distorted concept becomes exponentially more distorted.
Now, think about the assumptions we make in the Jewish world:
Assumptions about other Jews (e.g. Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, partial Jews and full Jews, born Jews and converted Jews)
Assumptions about Israel
Assumptions about Israeli Jews and assumptions about Diaspora Jews
Assumptions about Zionism and Zionists
Assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Assumptions about Palestinians and the Middle East
Assumptions about our lay-leaders and clergy members
Assumptions about our institutions and organizations
Assumptions about our Jewish or Jew-ish children and grandchildren
Here’s a story for you: When Jewish survivors of the Holocaust arrived in Israel, many of them were shamed by Jews already living in Israel during this atrocity: Why didn’t you fight back? and How could you let them do that to you? the locals would say to them. True story. All these shaming Jews knew was what they read in the newspapers, heard on the radio, and perhaps some hear-say.
Instead of asking survivors what really happened, they jumped to conclusions based on quite minimal information. And it’s not like these survivors landed in Israel happy-happy-joy-joy, eager to pour out their unimaginable traumas to anyone who would lend an ear or two.
Today, Holocaust survivors are universally celebrated in Israel, with initiatives to preserve their stories on videotape, as well as organizations dedicated to supporting the diminishing group of Holocaust survivors, such as one called Adopt-A-Safta (safta meaning grandmother in Hebrew) which pairs young adults with aging survivors to create interpersonal companionships. And of course there’s Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which offers complimentary entrance to visitors.
So, what exactly changed in Israel? Survivors started talking about their stories, and the rest started listening with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together.
If we would just ask more questions — with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together — we could rather quickly fan the flames of this pressing desire that results in knee-jerk assumption-making.
Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, calls this “making space for each other” which means “transcending our ego, rising above ourselves, and developing the capacity to show understanding, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us.”3
4) Think in terms of ‘double empathy.’
Double empathy is the concept that autistic people do not lack empathy, but rather that the experiences of autistic people and neurotypicals (anyone who has a typical neurotype) are different enough to where it is hard for one to understand what the other thinks.4
That is, the social and communication difficulties present in autistic people when socializing with non-autistic people are actually due to reciprocal lack of understanding and bidirectional differences in communication style, social-cognitive characteristics, and experiences between autistic people and non-autistic people. This does not necessarily indicate an inherent deficiency, since most autistic people are able to socialize, communicate, and empathize well with other autistic people.
Double empathy could explain why religious Jews and secular Jews, for example, have a hard time understanding each other’s thoughts, opinions, and lifestyles; or why Jews born just after the Holocaust tend to be unconditionally supportive of Israel, whereas millennial Jews are more picky and choosy about their relationship with Israel; or why Diaspora Jews don’t necessarily prioritize Israel’s defense and security as much as Israeli Jews do.
A mismatch between two different Jews (i.e. generational, religious, cultural, nationalist) can lead to faulty communication at many levels, from conversation styles to how they see the world. The greater the disconnect, the more difficulty the two parties will have interacting.
But here’s the thing: The mismatch is mutual. It’s not just that they’re struggling to connect with you; you are also struggling to connect with them, which means you have to do a better job, just as they have to do.
In our overwhelming world of “They just don’t get it,” double empathy requires us to think more along the lines of: “We both don’t get it, and we both have to do a better job of connecting with each other.”
Armstrong, Thomas. “The power of neurodiversity: unleashing the advantages of your differently wired brain.” 1st Da Capo Press paperback ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong. 2011.
“What is neurodiversity?” Harvard Health Publishing. November 23, 2001, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645.
Goldstein, Warren. “Striving for unity among the Jewish people is a practical undertaking.” The Jerusalem Post. May 31, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/striving-for-unity-among-the-jewish-people-is-a-practical-undertaking-629786.
DeThorne, Laura. “Revealing the Double Empathy Problem: It’s not that autistic* people lack empathy. Rather, their different neurotypes and experiences may make it harder for nonautisic people to understand them—and vice versa.” The ASHA Leader. 25: 58–65. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.25042020.58. S2CID 216359201 – via ResearchGate. April 1, 2020.