Chana Sharfstein is a fighter. Throughout much of her life she endured tragedy, struggles, and many obstacles. This never deterred her from fighting for what is just and right. 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 programs to assist the child. Few resources such as day camps, schools, or residential centers were available.”
Most painful for her and her family was the lack of support and understanding of the needs of this population. While many in the 1960s chose to hide their special-needs children from the public, Sharfstein treated Zlatie 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 members who were the recipients of mocking by classmates, belittling by teachers, and negative undertones from their neighbors.
While the situation today has improved, with community support, schools catering to this population, and organizations such as Chabad’s Friendship Circle, Sharfstein says the community still needs to learn about people with special needs and how to 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 their emotions.
“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. “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 them 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 role as 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 8, 7:30–9:30 p.m., Sharfstein and the Friendship Circle of Brooklyn, in commemoration of Zlatie’s yahrzeit, is presenting “Building Bridges,” an evening of awareness for people with special needs. The event will take place at the Jewish Children’s Museum, 792 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. At the event, Dignified Differences: A Special Soul will be distributed to all attendees.