By Aron Hirt-Manheimer.
This blog originally appeared on ReformJudaism.org.
Jeff Erlanger was an OSRUI camper and staff member who was an inspiration to all who knew him.
One of this summer’s surprise box office hits is Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary about Fred Rogers and his iconic public television show.
The documentary includes a segment, first aired on February 18, 1981 and rerun annually until 2008, that Fred Rogers considered his “most treasured time on the set” – an unscripted and unrehearsed visit with Jeffrey Erlanger, a 10-year-old Jewish boy who visited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in his electric-powered wheelchair.
Mister Rogers asked Jeff, “What is it that made you need this wheelchair?”
“When I was about seven months old,” explained Jeff, “I had a tumor, and it broke the nerves to tell my hands and legs what to do. And they tried to cut the tumor, but they couldn’t do it, and I became handicapped. And I got a wheelchair when I was 4 years old.”
Part way through the conversation, Jeff joined Mister Rogers in an improvised rendition of one of the show’s anthems of acceptance, “It’s You I Like”:
It’s you I like…
Not your fancy chair
That’s just beside you
But it’s you I like
Every part of you
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings…
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like…
After saying goodbye to Jeff, Mister Rogers looked into the camera (he considered the space between himself and the child he was addressing as “holy ground”) and reflected:
“For all of Jeff’s physical problems, he’s such a competent boy. He has learned so much because his mom and dad love him and he loves them. That’s what learning is all about, isn’t it? A lot has to do with love. Jeff is certainly able to talk about his worries. He is able to talk about anything. It’s really great to have a friend like that.”
Read the entire blog on ReformJudaism.org: