Special Needs, Special Gifts
By: Baraba Bensoussan
Published in Mishpacha Magazine, May 13, 2013
The message of Shavuos- âNaaseh VâNishma- Weâre ready to do your will, whatever it may beâ- wasnât an intellectual concept in the Reisman home. It was an axiom the family lived by. Even though four out of the eleven children were developmentally disabled, there was no hashkafic angst, no bitterness or self-pity. Never questioning Hashemâs decisions, the Reismans built a happy home with a bedrock of bitachon, creating stability amid disability.
Speeches at fundraising dinners arenât usually noted for riveting their audiences, most of whom are busy digging into the prime rib and stifling yawns. But this yearâs speech at the annual dinner for OHEL Childrenâs Home and Family Services in New York City was an exception: Not only did it captivate the crowd, it left both speaker and listeners choked with tears.Â
For the first time, Hinda Mizrahi related in public the story of her parents â Rabbi Yaakov Reisman, rav of Agudath Israel of Long Island, and Rebbetzin Chasya, the daughter of Rav Mordechai Gifter ztzâl â and how they raised a large family that included four sons with developmental disabilities.Â
âI never imagined my speech would get the kind of response it did,â says Hinda, who lives in Long Beach, New York with her husband and son. âSo many people were affected â yeshivish people, chassidic people, non-frum people, non-Jewish people.
âI came away from the speech feeling like my whole life â everything Iâve experienced, everything Iâve been through â was just for this moment. I felt I had a message to give, and that I was meant to give it at that very moment.â
âAll My Children are Specialâ
If thereâs one thing which shone from Hindaâs speech, it was her complete acceptance â and fierce love â of her siblings. This love was sparked by the way her parents treated their special children. âMy parents never tried to hide my brothers away,â Hinda says. âThey were fully part of the family, but our family wasnât defined by their disability. My father would say, âI only have special children. Some have special gifts, and some have special needs. But theyâre all special.â
âMy father also emphasized the idea that every person has his own potential and needs to do his best to live up to it. He would tell us, âYou get embarrassed by someone who doesnât live up to his potential, not by someone whose potential is limited â after all, itâs not their fault. If a person is living up to their potential, even if that potential is limited, you can be proud,ââ Hinda says. âIn our home, there was no comparing among the siblings. We all know each otherâs strengths, and we use our strengths to give to the family.â
Even though not one, but four, of the Reisman boys were born developmentally disabled, there was no hashkafic angst, no âWhy did this happen to our family?â As Hinda relates, âMy parents didnât say, âI donât know why I have this challenge. Hashem is testing me.â It was more like, âThese are the neshamos I was given and so these are the neshamos Iâm going to take care of.â I never saw faith like my parents have â itâs not lip service, they really live it. They never question Hashemâs decisions. Growing up, the message was clear: âThis is what Hashem wants, this is what weâre going to do.â
Hindaâs parents never seemed to feel that their developmentally disabled children were a burden. That acceptance spread to the children, allowing the presence of Hindaâs âspecialâ brothers to unite the siblings rather than create tension. âWe grew up appreciating the silliest things because of them,â Hinda says.Â
She tells of a time that she and her brothers went on a Chol HaMoed trip. When they got out of the car, it was raining and Shaya, who was very excited, kept saying, âApril showers bring May flowers.â âAt first, I was embarrassed,â Hinda remembers. âBut then I realized that my brothers werenât the ones with a problem. The people staring were; they couldnât appreciate that people are different. The whole way back to the car, we all joined in, chanting, âApril showers brings May flowers.â Now itâs become a family phrase.
âI told Shaya that I was going to mention the phrase in my Ohel speech and he was so excited that he told everyone about it. Before I said the line that night, I looked out at the audience. I couldnât see that many people with the dim lighting, but I saw Shaya â he has these beautiful blue eyes and those eyes were fixed on me. When I turned in his direction, he said âApril showers brings May flowersâ even before I did.â
Many people in the Reismansâ situation end up giving much more attention to the kids with disabilities than the kids without. That wasnât the case in Hindaâs home. âWe never felt like we were ignored or that we came second. We always got the same attention my brothers were getting. My mother never let them take over. Even if one of my special brothers was running around the table endlessly, sheâd let him run and listen to us. If one of them was having a temper tantrum and we needed her, sheâd sometimes let him scream while she dealt with us. She took the time to focus on us.
âWe werenât sacrificed for them,â Hinda continues. âSure, we made sacrifices as siblings â I didnât get a Cabbage Patch doll, for instance â but it was because I was part of a family and the family needed the money for other things.â In her Ohel speech, Hinda mentioned that she didnât mind foregoing Cabbage Patch dolls if it meant an extra physical therapy session to teach her brother to ride a bike. âI could always play with the doll at a friendâs house. âMy mother was also very good at not burdening us with responsibilities,â adds Hinda. âThere were no chores. It wasnât like âyouâre the one in charge of vacuuming and you do the dusting.â She would simply say, âShabbos is coming and I need help.â And then everyone would come help. My brothers also pitched in â they were always treated like equal members of the family.â One of her disabled brothers, Shaya, has an innate love of cleanliness. âHeâd yell, âEveryone out of the kitchen! I need to wash the floor!ââ Hinda recounts with a laugh. âMoishy zâl was physically quite strong and had lots of energy, so he was the one to take out garbage or schlep things up and down, and he was very proud to do so.âÂ
There were, of course, the inevitable lapses in perfect housekeeping that come with a household of 11 children. âMy motherâs philosophy was that happy children were more important than folding the laundry,â Hinda says. Still, Rebbetzin Reisman worked hard to create a sense of structure in the home. âThere was stability along with the disability,â Hinda remarks. âThere was always supper on the table. There was always clean clothing. If my mother said sheâd take us shopping on Tuesday, she could be counted on to make it happen â unless something very major came up. She attended all our school plays, even if she had to bring a brother along.
âMy mother made mothering her career â she never wanted to do anything except care for her family,â Hinda says with clear admiration and appreciation. âShe never took any outside help until after her 11th child. She very rarely went out; she didnât have the time for it. She never complained, she never found her jobs a burden. While the washing machine rarely stopped running, and it wasnât easy cooking for such a large family, she always seemed calm and content. I call her the soldier; she did what she had to do. You donât realize the strength in that until youâre a mother yourself. There was no, âIâm not making supper tonight. Iâll just order takeout.â Her job was to raise a big family and special neshamos â and she did it well.â
A Seamless TeamÂ
âMy parents are incredible examples of how to bring up a family with developmentally disabled children,â says Hinda. âIn our house, you couldnât act out, even if you were disabled. They trained my brothers from the youngest age in proper behavior. Sometimes you see disabled kids acting out, and their parents just let it happen, but my parents wouldnât put up with that. You see kids who wander around shul, and make a racket. My brothers were not allowed into shul until they were ready to sit quietly. And now, as adults, they daven what they know, and sit quietly for the rest. They sit through all the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur davening, too.â
Despite Rabbi Reismanâs many obligations as the rav of his shul, the parenting wasnât left on the Rebbetzinâs shoulders alone. âBusy as he was, if my mother would ever call and say, âI need you to come home,â heâd be home,â Hinda remembers. âMy parents were a seamless team. When one was down, the other would help him or her up. The burden of the family was very much shared. They did everything together â they went together to the doctors, to the public school, to all the parent-teacher meetings. They made all the decisions about medication and therapy options together. When I got married, I had no idea how to have a âgood fightâ with my husband because I never saw my parents disagree, fight, or argue about anything.âÂ
As with their unwavering faith, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Reismanâs love for their developmentally disabled sons wasnât mere lip service. âOften people say all sorts of things about their special kids â everyone is different and each person is special â but you can tell that they donât really believe it. Theyâre embarrassed when they go out with them. But my parents really truly believed it,â Hinda shares. âWhen it was visiting day in camp, the whole family came. Was I embarrassed? A little bit. There were other girls in my camp who had brothers in the same special school and their brothers wouldnât come. But when you see your parents being so accepting and proud, it rubs off on you.Â
âBecause of the love they received at home,â Hinda adds, âthe four boys grew up feeling secure and happy. They saw only the good in other people. And seeing only the good, they bring out peopleâs better natures.âÂ
Thirty years ago, schooling options for children with special needs were limited. For a while, the two older boys went to Chush, then the Reismans had to enroll all four of their developmentally disabled children in public school. âMy father was the son-in-law of Rabbi Gifter, and yet he had to put four kids in public school. Because thatâs what they needed. My parents didnât let chashuv yichus get in the way of doing what was best for their children,â Hinda points out.Â
âStill, it wasnât easy. The public school had treif food so my mother had to pack them up kosher lunches. Every time there was a birthday, the school would tell my mother in advance â that way, she could come down and bring them kosher cupcakes. One time they couldnât reach her and my brothers wouldnât touch the treif cupcakes. My father used to tell us, âYour brothers are going to get real schar for eating kosher. Itâs easy to eat kosher when thatâs what everyone is eating, but to be surrounded by treif and eat kosher is a real accomplishment.
Hindaâs brothers are considered high functioning; they can read at about a second grade level and do very simple sums. At home, they were disciplined when appropriate, and expected to show their parents the proper respect. All family standards, like chalav Yisrael and no television, were enforced equally for them. On a social level, Rabbi Reisman taught them to shake hands and look people in the eye while greeting them. âMy brothers just light up our lives, and the lives of everyone they meet, with their temimus and sincerity,â Hinda says. âTheyâre pure â itâs what you love about them. Thereâs no pretense, no guile. Thatâs what everyone appreciates about them.â
Each brother has his own distinct personality. Shaya, the oldest one, has sky-blue eyes, long blond eyelashes, and a radiant smile. His speech isnât so clear, but he loves when he can call people to wish a mazel tov. Heâs very aware of stains and dirt; when he worked for a dry cleaner, he was prized for his ability to spot a lingering stain on a garment before it went in for ironing. âShaya loves structure, so we went with it,â Hinda says. âEvery Sunday night, he would announce that tomorrow was Monday morning. On Monday morning, heâd go around repeating, âItâs Monday morning. Itâs Monday morning.â It was the alliteration that he loved. âMonday morningâ has become another one of those family jokes.âÂ
Of the brothers, Moishy zâl was probably the most challenging. By age six, heâd had several operations on his eyes and ears (he was born with his ears missing a fold). Perhaps because of this, he was an unhappy little boy who cried a lot. âMoishy was also very hyper. My parents spent a lot of time disciplining him â by the time he was a teenager, he was wellbehaved.
âIt bothered Moishy to be disabled, to be different,â Hinda remembers. âWhen he went to camp, he didnât want to be associated with the other disabled kids, even those he knew from school. He attached himself to the maintenance man and would help him with chores.â
Moishy loved to sing â off key â at the top of his voice in shul or at social gatherings. âPeople tolerated it.â Hinda smiles. âOne of the men tried to teach him to sing on key, telling him they were going to make a CD together. I think Moishyâs singing encouraged everyone else to sing louder!â
The quietest one is Avraham Yitzhak, who Hinda says probably has the highest intelligence. âItâs hard to get out what heâs thinking,â she says. âBut heâs very sweet and agreeable. As a kid, he used to love watching anything that spun, like a washing machine.â Today, he works as an assistant kindergarten teacher in Yeshiva Darchei Torah.Â
Shmuel Zalman, the youngest of the group, also works in a kindergarten in Yeshiva Darchei Torah. âHeâs very smiley and bubbly,â Hinda says. âHeâs a little hyper, too, so he loves playing games with children. Heâll gush to people, âYour kids are soooooo cute!â After my speech, he was busy telling everyone, âOHEL had a dinner. I was honored. My sister spoke beautiful!â Shmuel Zalman is also very into respect. âHe stands up ramrod straight every time my father walks into a room. When we were growing up, if any of us ever spoke disrespectfully to my mother, he was the one who would say âthatâs not the way you talk to a mother!â
The Village Which Raised ThemÂ
Growing up, Hinda and her ânormalâ siblings got stares and comments whenever they were with their âspecialâ brothers. âIt must have been a little hard for Chaim Asher [one of the healthy brothers], who is sandwiched between them,â Hinda says. âMy father made it very clear to him that âyour brothers are not your responsibility, they are my responsibility.â My father would take him on special trips and try to give him extra attention. None of us resented it since we knew he was in a difficult position.âÂ
The way the Reismans treat their developmentally disabled boys proved to be contagious, even beyond the family. âThe community really embraced them,â Hinda says. âWe consider my fatherâs shul in Far Rockaway/Lawrence our extended family. They appreciate my brothers, enjoy them for who they are, and find ways to include them. They donât pity them or treat them like nebachs. They found their beauty and helped them shine. If someone makes a simchah, my parents get an invitation and my brothers get their own invitation. The boys are so excited and count down the days to the simchah. People invite them over for Shabbos lunch without my parents. Moishy zâl joined a daf yomi shiur â Iâm sure he didnât understand anything, but they treated him like a regular member.â The Reismans fully expected to keep their sons living at home indefinitely, despite warnings from others that they werenât getting any younger. People thought it would be better to get these young men accustomed to a residence before their parents reached 120 years. Around six years ago, a fortunate conjunction of events settled the issue. The Reismans decided to sell their house and move elsewhere in the neighborhood, and their house was bought for use as a menâs residence by Ohel Childrenâs Home and Family Services.
The four brothers were able to become residents in the house they grew up in, and to remain together â a deep priority for their parents. The Reismans then bought a home close by. Every Shabbos, in rotation, one of the brothers comes home to his parents.Â
Once a month, Hinda takes her disabled brothers out to dinner. The entire week prior and the whole week after, they talk about the dinner. And theyâre in daily contact with her. âThey call me every evening,â Hinda says, her face lighting up. âTheyâll ask, âHow are you? Did you go to work? Did you make supper? Okay, Iâll talk to you tomorrow.â They like to keep in touch.â
Hinda recounts how she was once e-mailing someone and the person wished her a happy birthday. âI had no idea how he knew it was my birthday,â she relates. âThen he explained that he met my brothers in Gourmet Glatt, and they were buying flowers for me, and sharing with everyone that my birthday was coming. People who I havenât spoken to in months will call to say hi because theyâve just met my brothers, who sent regards. It brings people joy to bring my brothers joy.â
Four years ago, the family was devastated to learn that Moishy had been diagnosed with a fatal illness. While they were told he might only have a few weeks to live, he rallied and got better for a while. Then the disease returned, and Moishy moved back into his parentsâ home, where he could receive around the- clock care. When they couldnât find a male aide to shower and change him, Rebbetzin Reisman matter-of-factly undertook to do it herself.Â
Despite never having asked for help, the family enjoyed an outpouring of community support, as various people sent over dinners and cleaning help. They organized a kumzitz for Moishy which he greatly enjoyed and which uplifted everyone who participated. âHashem really picked the right person to be sick,â Hinda comments. âHis illness shook up everybody. People did bikur cholim for the right reasons â for him, not for themselves.âÂ
While many community members felt broken by Moishyâs death, Hinda says her parents remained exemplary avdei Hashem despite their deep sorrow. âI donât know that I could ever fill my parentsâ shoes,â Hinda says with reverence. âTheyâre so selfless, so holy â theyâre the essence of what a true, ideal Jew should be.Â
âWhen Moishy died, they werenât bitter; they didnât question. Their reaction to Moishyâs death was vayidom Aharon [and Aharon was silent, after the death of his two sons]. They were very accepting of it. Before the levayah, my mother cried, âHow do you say goodbye to a child?â But during shivah, she didnât cry. The day after shivah, I wasnât doing well. I called my mother and asked, âHow can you be fine?â âIâm not fine,â she replied. âI go into his room and I cry. And then I remember the funny things, and I laugh. Tatty and I speak about him â we cry and we laugh.â
Hindaâs firsthand experience of family members with disabilities has allowed her to understand that every human being, within his or her limitations, has something unique to offer. âPeople with disabilities shouldnât be excused from society,â she asserts. âMy parents always integrated my brothers into the entire family life. You have to raise them to be mentschen, to participate at some level. Every special person has a purpose, something to give, but sometimes people donât realize that there are special qualities behind the disability.âÂ
Or, as she said so eloquently in her speech, every âspecial needsâ person has a unique story, and each of us can become special through knowing them. âThank you, Hashem,â she said, âfor allowing our family to be the vehicle for this special story.âÂ