When Josh Toch was born, his cerebral palsy was so severe doctors predicted that if he survived, he’d likely never walk on his own. Now 16, he runs for his high school cross-country team. Josh, a straight-A junior at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, views his cerebral palsy not as a disability but as an opportunity to demonstrate that anyone can overcome limitations.
In the past year alone, Josh has tutored middle and elementary school students in math, served as his class treasurer and been the first president of the youth group at Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill.
Over the summer, he took his first trip to Israel — participating in a monthlong program, the I Speak Israel project.
“We talked to Knesset members, to east Jerusalem settlers and to Palestinians. I spent a lot of time listening,” Josh said. “There are so many more questions than answers.”
Josh was the only teen on the trip with cerebral palsy, a condition that causes physical disabilities in development and body movement. Josh, who has had years of speech and occupational therapies, said that having CP has given him a unique take on life — one that he has been sharing with others over the past three years by publicly telling his story.
One thing he tells people is his motto: “The more normal you are, the more boring you are.”
Over the past year, Josh also has been speaking out against the kind of bullying he was subjected to as a child, when other kids made fun of his slurred speech, his awkward handwriting and the way his head would roll back and forth. (Josh’s condition does not affect his mental abilities.)
Last winter, he won a prize at the local Rotary Club after speaking in front of 120 adults. One of the people who took notice was Morgan Hill Union School District Superintendent Wesley Smith, who snapped up Josh for an anti-bullying program.
Josh went on to take part in roundtable discussions at elementary, middle and high schools throughout the district, and he is being tapped to do more this year.
“My first impression of Josh was that he was a very courageous, mature young man,” Smith said. “He told his story and exposed his challenges to a room full of adults, and educated and inspired the group. Josh has the courage, maturity and personality to be a voice against bullying.”
Josh’s leadership skills were bolstered over the summer with I Speak Israel. The program is a joint initiative of the David Project (which organizes Israel advocacy on college campuses) and Young Judaea (the Zionist youth organization).
The David Project’s emphasis on developing student leaders meshed well with Josh’s leadership role in speaking out against bullying.
According to Zeev Ben-Shachar of the David Project, “We got an impression very early on that Josh had an amazing story, and at the end of his talk there was no dry eye.”
Though interested in supporting the David Project’s effort to form a pro-Israel club in his school, Josh said, “I’m not pro-Israel on everything Israel does.”
“He’s not a yes man,” assured Ben-Shachar.
That is a positive trait, said Rabbi Debbie Israel, Josh’s rabbi at Congregation Emeth. “Josh is going to become a very effective spokesperson for Israel because of his understanding of the political complexities,” she said.
During a Simchat Torah celebration this month at Congregation Emeth, Josh is scheduled to speak about his Israel trip. Part of what he’ll talk about is how he gained inspiration and developed an analytical approach to problems — lessons that he can apply to his anti-bullying work in Morgan Hill.
“In Israel we looked down at the problem from overhead,” he explained. “We asked, ‘What is the bigger issue?’ It’s not about one bomb in one city in one day. And we can’t look at one bullying in one city in one day.”
Energy shouldn’t be expended on particular incidents, he said, but on the behaviors that underlie them. “Otherwise you will be endlessly chasing the problem,” he said.
In his anti-bullying work, Josh tells of his own experiences. He talks about how kids used to call him “bobblehead,” how they taunted him about many things, such as the way he walks on his toes at times (a condition of his CP).
Even today, in an era when kids are taught about the horrors of bullying, Josh says he endures hurtful comments. For example, when he was tutoring a Hebrew class and tried to calm things down after the kids became unruly, one kid made fun of his slow speech. (Josh estimates that he speaks at about 80 percent the rate of so-called normal speech.)
Josh quickly excused the student. “He didn’t know I had CP, and if he had, he would never have made fun of me,” Josh said, taking the opportunity to make a point: Ignorance is one of the main roots of prejudice.
Josh acknowledged that educating people about bullying is a slow process, but it’s a war he’s willing to fight. “I cannot just be a bystander and see young people lose this endless battle,” he said.