Rena Rosen was born with a cleft lip and palate, along with some other physical abnormalities, part of a craniofacial syndrome.
When she was growing up, her family and friends treated her with kindness and respect, but others didn't always know how to react to her physical differences. Children would stare or ask questions about how Rosen looked different, and their parents would either pull them aside and tell them it wasn't okay to ask questions, or they'd ignore their children's inquiries all together.
Despite people's reactions, Rosen, who is Jewish, always knew she was beautiful-and yet her feelings were still hurt.
"It's okay to feel discomfort when you see people who are different, but it's how we help people create that kindness switch that matters," Rosen said.
Over time, she developed a thick skin and found outlets to express herself. In college, she earned her degree in photography and launched an exhibition on finding beauty in imperfection.
For the past two years, she has shared her vision of "The Art of Compassion" to children at schools, religious institutions, and community organizations. She focuses her message on kindness, inclusion, and promoting awareness of all abilities and physical differences.
Speaking out has raised her confidence level. Adults and children from her audiences often approach her to tell her how strong and beautiful she is. "Once I really started speaking publicly about it, I started to believe in myself," said Rosen, who lives in West Rogers Park. "A lot of times when you hear something enough times, you start to believe it."
Enter Jewish Skokie mother of two and elementary school teacher Jenny Levin, who met Rosen through friends. With common values and goals of teaching the art of compassion to children, the two women teamed up to write a book about teaching children, and the adults who care for them, how to navigate interactions with individuals who have visible differences.
The book, titled The Courage to Be Kind (Archway Publishing), released this winter, guides children, parents, and teachers on how to foster meaningful conversations around disability, differences, and inclusion. The book combines fictional storytelling with non-fiction information and photographs of lesser known physical syndromes and differences, like Alopecia, Apert syndrome, and Spina bifida.
Though the book is intended for all children, it's steeped in Jewish values. "A central theme of Judaism is acts of loving kindness- gemilut hasadim -which is a value deep within our book," Levin said. "Teaching kindness through the lens of Judaism helps us see how to act unselfishly. It doesn't cost anything to be kind."
Ultimately, the book celebrates that we're all beautiful because of or differences-but we're also all the same. After all, as Rosen puts it, "we're all part of one human population."
The book is available at bookstores, through Archway Publishing, and on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
For more information about the book or to arrange a reading at your school, email Thecouragetobekind@gmail.com. For more information about Rena Rosen's initiative to teach the art of compassion, visit here .