Chana Sharfstein is a fighter. Throughout much of her life she endured tragedy, struggles and many obstacles. This never deterred her, always fighting for what was right and in her eyes just.
When her autistic daughter Zlatie passed away last year at the age of 53, it propelled her to continue to fight on behalf of people with special needs.
“When Zlatie was diagnosed with Autism, the medical condition was only in its infancy,” Sharfstein recalls. “There were no occupational therapists, physical therapists or early intervention to assist the child. Few resources such as day camps, schools or residential centers were available.”
Yet most painful for her and her family was the lack of support and understanding of the needs of this population. While many in the 1960’s chose to hide their children from the public, Sharfstein took no such actions and treated her like every other member of the family, taking her to the park, restaurants and public events. As a result there was a backlash for her family, who were the recipients of mocking by classmates, belittling of teachers and negative undertones from their neighbors.
While today, Sharfstein says things are much better, with community support, schools catering to this population, and such organizations as the Chabad run Friendship Circle, she says that the community at large still needs to learn about people with special needs and how they can be more sensitive to them and their families. In a new book Dignified Differences: A Special Soul, Sharfstein and her family talk about their pain, their triumphs and how they feel.
“Zlatie’s life impacted our family in a most painful and heartbreaking way,” her brother Sruli Sharfstein writes, “It was during a time when people with special needs were not understood. Our neighbors, associates and mentors teased me, and at times placed the blame of her ‘blemishes’ on me. I still feel the pain. I still live with the insults and ridicule I endured as a child.”
For Sruli it was tragic, but he triumphed and sees Zlatie as not only being a challenge for those who encountered her: “I feel that Zlatie was placed on this earth to test our humanity and compassion. Some failed; others greatly succeeded.”
Zlatie’s sister Seema Gersten describes Zlatie as one who was unable to communicate with those she loved the most, yet she was able to tell us which songs she wanted on the record player and what foods she would enjoy for dinner.
“When you judge someone based on a diagnosis,” she writes, “you miss out on their abilities, uniqueness and beauty. Zlatie was so much more than a woman struggling with autism.”
With raw emotions Zlatie’s mother writes about her being the caretaker, the emotional struggle when she had to decide to send her to a residence and facing her granddaughter who came face-to-face with someone who spoke condescendingly about Zlatie.
With all that, she writes: “Thank You, G-d, for entrusting me with this special human being. Zlatie impacted my entire life, and helped me grow in so many ways, teaching me to appreciate the small things, to love unconditionally, to be strong.”
On Sunday, March 8th, 2015, Sharfstein together with the The Friendship Circle of Brooklyn, in commemoration of Zlatie’s Yahrtzeit, is presenting an evening of awareness for people with special needs titled Building Bridges. The event will take place at the Jewish Children’s Museum, 792 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY, from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. At the event Dignified Differences: A Special Soul will be distributed to all attendees.