By Barb Arland-Fye
Cantor Gail Karp arrived at my workplace bearing books, brochures and videos about autism and an optimistic attitude that bolstered my spirits as the mother of a preschooler newly diagnosed with autism. That was 25 years ago, recalled Gail during a small dinner party at her home last weekend. “Has it been 25 years?” I asked Gail, whose son Josh has autism and is five years older than my son Colin.
Oh, the roads Gail and I have traveled together this past quarter-century in an interfaith friendship cemented by a mother’s love for a son with autism! Gail taught me about advocacy and networking in striving to increase awareness about a disability that impacts an individual’s ability to communicate and to socialize.
We attended conferences that enlightened and filled us with hope. Her networking skills helped bring actor William Christopher (Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H) to Iowa to give an inspiring speech on his family’s experience with autism.
Her “chutzpah” encouraged me to be bolder, to ask more questions when collaborating with my son Colin’s educators. She persuaded me to serve as newsletter editor of the Autism Society of the Quad Cities and, later, to lead the organization for a short while. Gail never asked me, or anyone else, to do more than she already was doing.
Autism brought us together, but our friendship has been enriched by a sharing of our respective faith traditions. I attended the bat mitzvah (a coming of age ceremony) of Gail’s youngest child, Helene, now 23, at Temple Emanuel in Davenport where Gail’s husband, Rabbi Henry Karp serves as the longtime rabbi.
Gail taught me about the concept of Tikkun Olam, in which Jews are called to perform acts of kindness to repair or perfect the world. I learned about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar which is marked by fasting, atonement, solemnity and joy. We’ve talked about Catholic and Jewish teaching on prayer, rituals and social justice. We’ve discussed each other’s understanding of Jesus Christ, and reflected on eternal life.
We’ve gotten together socially as couples — Gail and Rabbi Karp and my husband Steve and me — over coffee and dessert. I attended a surprise party for Gail’s 50th birthday, but inadvertently blew the surprise. Gail spotted my blue Volkswagen “Bug” in the restaurant parking lot and knew something was up!
I got mad at Gail when we were supposed to fly together to a conference. She forgot to tell me she’d been upgraded to first class while I was in coach! As it turned out, she got sick on the flight and I ended up wheeling her around the airport in a wheelchair. The airport attendant wanted nothing to do with a woman clutching a trash can on her lap! We laughed about that memory at the dinner party.
Recently, Rabbi Karp posted something on Facebook that got me thinking about faith and friendship. He expressed concern about the outcome of this year’s presidential election and religious intolerance. He noted that “it is up to us whether or not we will remain the land of the free and a refuge for the oppressed. It is up to us as to whether or not America will rise to its highest ideals or sink to its lowest depths. The question is: Will we be up to the task of safeguarding the best that is America?”
My response: yes, we are up to the task. It starts with the building of personal relationships, as Gail and I began 25 years ago.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.)