Ashira Greenberg may only be a senior at the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (YUHSG), but the 17-year-old is already a published author. In October, Israel BookShop Publications released 2,000 copies of her work, a rhyming 24-page illustrated children’s book called Don’t Judge by What You See.
Greenberg, who lives in Hillcrest, Queens, was born with cerebral palsy, and wrote the book to share with the world the importance of not judging others based on external appearances and physical disabilities but rather seeing people for who they truly are inside. The book is based on Greenberg’s own experiences, as well as those of her friends’ from Simcha Special, a camp run by Chai Lifeline for children with chronic disabilities, and Kids of Courage, an organization that helps children with illnesses and disabilities. Greenberg participated in both groups in recent summers.
“In seventh grade, I was having a hard time coping emotionally with my condition and how others viewed me, and I realized that it wasn’t just me, but that many of my friends were also struggling,” said Greenberg. “It was comforting to know that it was a problem, but it was kind of disturbing because it meant that there was a much larger problem that wasn’t limited to the Orthodox community, but that was affecting the general society and we needed to do something to try to fix it.”
Greenberg credited Devori Weichholz, her seventh-grade teacher at Yeshiva of Central Queens (YCQ), for inspiring and encouraging her to write about her experiences.
“She was very supportive and interested in helping me out so I could do everything like everyone else,” said Greenberg. “I had the idea that I could write a book and tell the world about this problem so people would have something concrete in front of them that they could pick up that hopefully would help.”
Greenberg initially wrote a poem and collected writings from her bunkmates at Simcha Special. “This wasn’t my personal problem; it was our problem,” she emphasized. “I wanted the book to represent the way we felt.”
After submitting her work, she received feedback from a publisher that her writing was “really good, but too short and too heavy, and too sad to market.” So she returned to the drawing board and solicited more ideas and anecdotes from her friends.
The writings remained on her computer, but the book was put on hold temporarily. Then at the end of 10th grade, she met Weichholz again and felt the timing was right to finish what she had started. “I told her I would do this and she helped me out at YCQ on so many levels,” Greenberg said. “I didn’t know if the book was actually going to happen but I could try my best, so I went back to my computer with the previous critiques in mind… I thought maybe if I wrote it for a younger audience—a lighter and fluffier version built around a story, while still giving over the message of not judging others superficially, it could work… and the publisher liked it.”
The book has been distributed all over the country and the world, including Israel, Europe, Australia and South Africa. In January, Greenberg had a book signing organized by YESS!—Yeshiva Education for Special Students, a special education program run by YCQ where she previously served as a volunteer.
Greenberg has tried not to let her disability hinder her. She’s been in mainstream schools all her life and is just like any other student. Though she uses a walker to help her get around and receives photocopied notes at school due to limited mobility in her left hand and arm, she keeps up with her able-bodied peers. At YUHSG, she has written for the school newspaper, is a member of the Torah Bowl team and has participated in learning for the Chidon.
She also dedicates her free time to volunteer and is actively involved in causes that are close to her heart. When most of her friends went on touring programs the summer after 10th grade, Greenberg chose to volunteer at the Yad Sarah organization in Israel, which provides medical equipment and medically related information to sick or disabled Israelis and tourists from abroad.
Though Greenberg doesn’t know if she will pursue a career in publishing, she aspires to be a Judaic studies teacher and would like to attend Stern College for Women after possibly spending a post-high-school year in Israel. “I wrote this book for a very specific reason and I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but I am open to writing more,” she said. “It was a great experience and I definitely enjoyed it.”