by Aron Hirt-Manheimer. Originally posted on ReformJudaism.org.
Jeffrey Erlanger gained fame at age 10 when he appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in his electric-powered wheelchair. After visiting with Jeff, Mister Rogers turned to the camera and said, “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.”
On the eve of Father’s Day, I sat down with Jeff’s parents, Howie and Pam Erlanger, to gain insights about how they raised such a competent and loving son.
ReformJudaism.org: As a young child, Jeff faced surgery after surgery, yet he always had a positive attitude. What’s the source of his optimistic spirit?
Howie and Pam: It was his nature. Not that he wasn’t scared. We remember one occasion, minutes before surgery, when he said, “I can’t do this. Do I have to do this?” As soon as the medical team entered the room, it was as if a switch went on. Jeff turned to us and said, “I can do this.” The doctors and nurses started a conversation and he just perked up, smiling, and joking around.
We did intentionally create a positive, fun-loving atmosphere in our home for Jeff and Lisa, his older sister. When we decided to hire a live-in aide to free us up to spend more time with the kids, we looked for someone young and vivacious who could be like an older sibling. To find the right person, we’d interview them at the dinner table, where the four of us would joke around a lot. If the applicant didn’t join in the fun, we knew it was not a good fit. …
… Did Jeff have much of a social life outside of the family?
Girls liked to mommy him at school, but otherwise he was not on other kids’ radar.
His social life really blossomed at his summer camp, URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. In that accepting environment, kids didn’t have to worry about the social pressures at school and could be their best selves.
Camp was Jeff’s first big step toward independence …