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Special Needs, Special Gifts

By: Baraba Bensoussan

Published in Mishpacha Magazine, May 13, 2013

The message of Shavuos- “Naaseh V’Nishma- We’re ready to do your will, whatever it may be”- wasn’t 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 Hashem’s decisions, the Reismans built a happy home with a bedrock of bitachon, creating stability amid disability.

Speeches at fundraising dinners aren’t usually noted for riveting their audiences, most of whom are busy digging into the prime rib and stifling yawns. But this year’s speech at the annual dinner for OHEL Children’s 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. 

For the first time, Hinda Mizrahi related in public the story of her parents — Rabbi Yaakov Reisman, rav of Agudath Israel of Long Island, and Rebbetzin Chasya, the daughter of Rav Mordechai Gifter ztz”l — and how they raised a large family that included four sons with developmental disabilities. 

“I never imagined my speech would get the kind of response it did,” says Hinda, who lives in Long Beach, New York with her husband and son. “So many people were affected — yeshivish people, chassidic people, non-frum people, non-Jewish people.

“I came away from the speech feeling like my whole life — everything I’ve experienced, everything I’ve been through — 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.”

“All My Children are Special”
If there’s one thing which shone from Hinda’s speech, it was her complete acceptance — and fierce love — of her siblings. This love was sparked by the way her parents treated their special children. “My parents never tried to hide my brothers away,” Hinda says. “They were fully part of the family, but our family wasn’t defined by their disability. My father would say, ‘I only have special children. Some have special gifts, and some have special needs. But they’re all special.’

“My 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, ‘You get embarrassed by someone who doesn’t live up to his potential, not by someone whose potential is limited — after all, it’s not their fault. If a person is living up to their potential, even if that potential is limited, you can be proud,’” Hinda says. “In our home, there was no comparing among the siblings. We all know each other’s strengths, and we use our strengths to give to the family.”

Even though not one, but four, of the Reisman boys were born developmentally disabled, there was no hashkafic angst, no “Why did this happen to our family?” As Hinda relates, “My parents didn’t say, ‘I don’t know why I have this challenge. Hashem is testing me.’ It was more like, ‘These are the neshamos I was given and so these are the neshamos I’m going to take care of.’ I never saw faith like my parents have — it’s not lip service, they really live it. They never question Hashem’s decisions. Growing up, the message was clear: “This is what Hashem wants, this is what we’re going to do.”

Hinda’s parents never seemed to feel that their developmentally disabled children were a burden. That acceptance spread to the children, allowing the presence of Hinda’s “special” brothers to unite the siblings rather than create tension. “We grew up appreciating the silliest things because of them,” Hinda says. 

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, “April showers bring May flowers.” “At first, I was embarrassed,” Hinda remembers. “But then I realized that my brothers weren’t the ones with a problem. The people staring were; they couldn’t appreciate that people are different. The whole way back to the car, we all joined in, chanting, ‘April showers brings May flowers.’ Now it’s become a family phrase.

“I 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 couldn’t see that many people with the dim lighting, but I saw Shaya — he has these beautiful blue eyes and those eyes were fixed on me. When I turned in his direction, he said ‘April showers brings May flowers’ even before I did.”

Many people in the Reismans’ situation end up giving much more attention to the kids with disabilities than the kids without. That wasn’t the case in Hinda’s home. “We 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, she’d let him run and listen to us. If one of them was having a temper tantrum and we needed her, she’d sometimes let him scream while she dealt with us. She took the time to focus on us.

“We weren’t sacrificed for them,” Hinda continues. “Sure, we made sacrifices as siblings — I didn’t get a Cabbage Patch doll, for instance — but it was because I was part of a family and the family needed the money for other things.” In her Ohel speech, Hinda mentioned that she didn’t mind foregoing Cabbage Patch dolls if it meant an extra physical therapy session to teach her brother to ride a bike. “I could always play with the doll at a friend’s house. “My mother was also very good at not burdening us with responsibilities,” adds Hinda. “There were no chores. It wasn’t like ‘you’re the one in charge of vacuuming and you do the dusting.’ She would simply say, ‘Shabbos is coming and I need help.’ And then everyone would come help. My brothers also pitched in — they were always treated like equal members of the family.” One of her disabled brothers, Shaya, has an innate love of cleanliness. “He’d yell, ‘Everyone out of the kitchen! I need to wash the floor!’” Hinda recounts with a laugh. “Moishy z”l 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.” 

There were, of course, the inevitable lapses in perfect housekeeping that come with a household of 11 children. “My mother’s philosophy was that happy children were more important than folding the laundry,” Hinda says. Still, Rebbetzin Reisman worked hard to create a sense of structure in the home. “There was stability along with the disability,” Hinda remarks. “There was always supper on the table. There was always clean clothing. If my mother said she’d take us shopping on Tuesday, she could be counted on to make it happen — unless something very major came up. She attended all our school plays, even if she had to bring a brother along.

“My mother made mothering her career — she never wanted to do anything except care for her family,” Hinda says with clear admiration and appreciation. “She never took any outside help until after her 11th child. She very rarely went out; she didn’t have the time for it. She never complained, she never found her jobs a burden. While the washing machine rarely stopped running, and it wasn’t 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 don’t realize the strength in that until you’re a mother yourself. There was no, ‘I’m not making supper tonight. I’ll just order takeout.’ Her job was to raise a big family and special neshamos — and she did it well.”

A Seamless Team 
“My parents are incredible examples of how to bring up a family with developmentally disabled children,” says Hinda. “In our house, you couldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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.”

Despite Rabbi Reisman’s many obligations as the rav of his shul, the parenting wasn’t left on the Rebbetzin’s shoulders alone. “Busy as he was, if my mother would ever call and say, ‘I need you to come home,’ he’d be home,” Hinda remembers. “My 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 — 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 ‘good fight’ with my husband because I never saw my parents disagree, fight, or argue about anything.” 

As with their unwavering faith, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Reisman’s love for their developmentally disabled sons wasn’t mere lip service. “Often people say all sorts of things about their special kids — everyone is different and each person is special — but you can tell that they don’t really believe it. They’re embarrassed when they go out with them. But my parents really truly believed it,” Hinda shares. “When 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 wouldn’t come. But when you see your parents being so accepting and proud, it rubs off on you. 

“Because of the love they received at home,” Hinda adds, “the four boys grew up feeling secure and happy. They saw only the good in other people. And seeing only the good, they bring out people’s better natures.” 

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. “My father was the son-in-law of Rabbi Gifter, and yet he had to put four kids in public school. Because that’s what they needed. My parents didn’t let chashuv yichus get in the way of doing what was best for their children,” Hinda points out. 

“Still, it wasn’t 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 — that way, she could come down and bring them kosher cupcakes. One time they couldn’t reach her and my brothers wouldn’t touch the treif cupcakes. My father used to tell us, ‘Your brothers are going to get real schar for eating kosher. It’s easy to eat kosher when that’s what everyone is eating, but to be surrounded by treif and eat kosher is a real accomplishment.

Hinda’s 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. “My brothers just light up our lives, and the lives of everyone they meet, with their temimus and sincerity,” Hinda says. “They’re pure — it’s what you love about them. There’s no pretense, no guile. That’s what everyone appreciates about them.”

Each brother has his own distinct personality. Shaya, the oldest one, has sky-blue eyes, long blond eyelashes, and a radiant smile. His speech isn’t so clear, but he loves when he can call people to wish a mazel tov. He’s 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. “Shaya loves structure, so we went with it,” Hinda says. “Every Sunday night, he would announce that tomorrow was Monday morning. On Monday morning, he’d go around repeating, ‘It’s Monday morning. It’s Monday morning.’ It was the alliteration that he loved. ‘Monday morning’ has become another one of those family jokes.” 

Of the brothers, Moishy z”l was probably the most challenging. By age six, he’d 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. “Moishy was also very hyper. My parents spent a lot of time disciplining him — by the time he was a teenager, he was wellbehaved.

“It bothered Moishy to be disabled, to be different,” Hinda remembers. “When he went to camp, he didn’t 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.”

Moishy loved to sing — off key — at the top of his voice in shul or at social gatherings. “People tolerated it.” Hinda smiles. “One of the men tried to teach him to sing on key, telling him they were going to make a CD together. I think Moishy’s singing encouraged everyone else to sing louder!”

The quietest one is Avraham Yitzhak, who Hinda says probably has the highest intelligence. “It’s hard to get out what he’s thinking,” she says. “But he’s very sweet and agreeable. As a kid, he used to love watching anything that spun, like a washing machine.” Today, he works as an assistant kindergarten teacher in Yeshiva Darchei Torah. 

Shmuel Zalman, the youngest of the group, also works in a kindergarten in Yeshiva Darchei Torah. “He’s very smiley and bubbly,” Hinda says. “He’s a little hyper, too, so he loves playing games with children. He’ll gush to people, ‘Your kids are soooooo cute!’ After my speech, he was busy telling everyone, “OHEL had a dinner. I was honored. My sister spoke beautiful!” Shmuel Zalman is also very into respect. “He 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 “that’s not the way you talk to a mother!”

The Village Which Raised Them 
Growing up, Hinda and her “normal” siblings got stares and comments whenever they were with their “special” brothers. “It must have been a little hard for Chaim Asher [one of the healthy brothers], who is sandwiched between them,” Hinda says. “My father made it very clear to him that ‘your brothers are not your responsibility, they are my responsibility.’ 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.” 

The way the Reismans treat their developmentally disabled boys proved to be contagious, even beyond the family. “The community really embraced them,” Hinda says. “We consider my father’s 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 don’t 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 z”l joined a daf yomi shiur — I’m sure he didn’t understand anything, but they treated him like a regular member.” The Reismans fully expected to keep their sons living at home indefinitely, despite warnings from others that they weren’t 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 men’s residence by Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services.

The four brothers were able to become residents in the house they grew up in, and to remain together — 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. 

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 they’re in daily contact with her. “They call me every evening,” Hinda says, her face lighting up. “They’ll ask, ‘How are you? Did you go to work? Did you make supper? Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ They like to keep in touch.”

Hinda recounts how she was once e-mailing someone and the person wished her a happy birthday. “I had no idea how he knew it was my birthday,” she relates. “Then 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 haven’t spoken to in months will call to say hi because they’ve just met my brothers, who sent regards. It brings people joy to bring my brothers joy.”

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 parents’ home, where he could receive around the- clock care. When they couldn’t find a male aide to shower and change him, Rebbetzin Reisman matter-of-factly undertook to do it herself. 

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. “Hashem really picked the right person to be sick,” Hinda comments. “His illness shook up everybody. People did bikur cholim for the right reasons — for him, not for themselves.” 

While many community members felt broken by Moishy’s death, Hinda says her parents remained exemplary avdei Hashem despite their deep sorrow. “I don’t know that I could ever fill my parents’ shoes,” Hinda says with reverence. “They’re so selfless, so holy — they’re the essence of what a true, ideal Jew should be. 

“When Moishy died, they weren’t bitter; they didn’t question. Their reaction to Moishy’s 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, ‘How do you say goodbye to a child?’ But during shivah, she didn’t cry. The day after shivah, I wasn’t doing well. I called my mother and asked, “How can you be fine?’ ‘I’m not fine,’ she replied. ‘I go into his room and I cry. And then I remember the funny things, and I laugh. Tatty and I speak about him — we cry and we laugh.”

Hinda’s 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. “People with disabilities shouldn’t be excused from society,” she asserts. “My 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 don’t realize that there are special qualities behind the disability.” 

Or, as she said so eloquently in her speech, every “special needs” person has a unique story, and each of us can become special through knowing them. “Thank you, Hashem,” she said, “for allowing our family to be the vehicle for this special story.” 

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  • 07/11/2013 - OHEL Opens New Supported Living Apartments with...
  • 07/03/2013 - OHEL Bais Ezra’s East Broadway Residence Ligh...
  • 07/03/2013 - OHEL Bais Ezra Ave M Residence Hosts Community ...
  • 06/20/2013 - OHEL Caregiving Evening- Addresses Needs of the...
  • 06/20/2013 - SKA and OHEL Team up to Help Provide for Foster...
  • 06/20/2013 - OHEL Institute Autism Conference on Social Skil...
  • 06/18/2013 - OHEL Scholar in Residence, Charlie Harary, Wows...
  • 06/17/2013 - OHEL Bais Ezra Woodmere Resident Celebrates Her...
  • 6/12/2013 - OHEL Bais Ezra Residents Welcomed in Community...
  • 6/11/2013 - OHEL Discusses Trauma on Nachum Segal Radio Show...
  • 6/5/13 -Touro and OHEL: Delivering Services in an In Increas...
  • 5/21/13 - Oklahoma Tragedy, OHEL Provides Pointers to Parent...
  • 4/4/13 OHEL Bais Ezra’s Annual Chol Haomoed Adventure...
  • 3/14/13 Socialize and Find Your Bashert...
  • 3/6/13 OHEL’S New Five Towns Office...
  • 2/18/13 OHEL Annual Gala 2013...
  • 2/6/13 OHEL Bais Ezra’s Sibshops Program Empowers Siblings...
  • 11/19/2012 - New Project Hope Crisis Counseling Program...
  • 11/14/2012 - OHEL Provides Comfort to Evacuated Residents...
  • 11/13/2012 - Free Carnival...
  • 11/12/2012 - Hurricane Sandy...
  • 11/11/2012 - Rosh Hashana ...
  • 10/31/2012 - Robert Katz as the New Chief Development Office...
  • 10/31/2012 - Etta Israel Center of L.A. Merges with OHEL...
  • 09/14/2012 - Bais Ezra Hosts Community-Wide BBQ...
  • 08/20/2012 - Camp Kaylie Inaugurates the Kleinman Bais Medra...
  • 08/03/2012 - Ruach K’tonton in West Hempstead...
  • 08/02/2012 - OHEL Congratulates Our Own Misayim HaShas...
  • 07/24/2012 - NBA Greats Thrill Campers...
  • 06/19/2012 - Golf Classic...
  • 05/26/2012 - Getting Older...
  • 05/21/2012 - Day of Remembrance...
  • 03/07/2012 - Challenges of Anger Disorders...
  • 03/06/2012 - Bais Ezra 30th Anniversary...
  • 02/14/2012 - Ohel Draws Capacity Crowd...
  • 01/25/2012 - Mel Zachter Named OHEL Co-president...
  • 01/16/2012 - Gary Schaer To Receive the “Legislator of the...
  • 01/02/2012 - Cherish the Children...
  • 10/05/2011 - OHEL Bais Ezra’s Sibshops Program Empowers Si...
  • 08/30/2011 - Kaylie Day: A Dream Fulfilled...
  • 06/28/2011 - Pomegranate’s Chef Boris Grills Up a Great T...
  • 06/24/2011 - OHEL Golf Classic...
  • 05/25/2011 - OHEL Institute for Training Workshop Addressing...
  • 04/13/2011 - OHEL Institute for Training Addresses Eating Di...
  • 03/17/2011 - Over 400 Celebrates Purim with Matisyahu...
  • 03/11/2011 - New OHEL Video Colorizes the World ...
  • 03/11/2011 - OHEL Appoints New Director of Development...
  • 03/02/2011 - Reggae Star Matisyahu To Perform ...
  • 12/20/2010 - OHEL Regional Family Center of Northern NJ Tra...
  • 12/16/2010 - OHEL Provides Training on Addictions ...
  • 12/16/2010 - OHEL Residents and Neighbors Gather for a BBQ ...
  • 12/07/2010 - OHEL Insitute Provides Training On Short-Term T...
  • 11/24/2010 - OHEL Sixth Annual Benefit Concert ...
  • 11/21/2010 - OHEL Benefit Concert November 21st...
  • 11/11/2010 - Team OHEL Wins For OHEL Bais Ezra Kids...
  • 11/10/2010 - OHEL Working Breakfast Addresses Student-Issues...
  • 11/09/2010 - Gaining Couple Therapy Expertise at OHEL...
  • 07/19/2010 - Large Turnout at First Camp Kaylie Open House...
  • 07/13/2010 - “Building Resiliency in Our Children”...
  • 06/28/2010 - OHEL Golf Classic Benefits Children!...
  • 06/08/2010 - Training for Parents of Children with ADHD...
  • 04/28/2010 - Long Islanders Ride for OHEL Residents of the 5...
  • 04/07/2010 - “Reaching Out to Special Friends” Competit...
  • 03/11/2010 - Shloime Dachs Annual Siyum and BBQ...
  • 03/01/2010 - OHEL Draws Capacity Crowd To Celebrate 40 Years...
  • 02/12/2010 - Malky Giniger Presents a Star-Studded New Show...
  • 02/05/2010 - Meeting the Challenge of Postpartum Depression...
  • 01/21/2010 - OHEL 40th Anniversary Annual Dinner...
  • 01/10/2010 - Professionals Prepare to Address Teen Behaviors...
  • 01/08/2010 - Record Number of OHEL Bais Ezra Day Trips ...
  • 01/03/2010 - OHEL Celebrates Purim with Le Cirque Du Purime...

ARTICLES

  • Overnight Respite...
  • Employment: The Power of a Paycheck...
  • After the Brooklyn fire tragedy in which seven children died...
  • Rav Elya Brudny and Others Address Over 200 at Conference to...
  • Does Alan Turing have Aspergers Syndrome?...
  • Foster Parenting: How will it affect my children?...
  • “Hard to Place,” Not Hard to Love...
  • The Ties That Bind: Keeping Siblings Together in Foster Car...
  • Confronting Abuse in the Frum World ...
  • Understanding the Educational and Behavioral Needs of Childr...
  • When Divorce Can Save a Marriage...
  • Jewish Kids are in Foster Care, Too...
  • A Fulfilling Life ...
  • Richard Bernstein to Become First Blind State Supreme Court ...
  • Ask the Expert: Eligibility Specialist...
  • Meachorei Hapargod: Lessons for Elul, Courtesy of Summer Ca...
  • Early Parental Loss...
  • Are Gedolim Stories Good Chinuch?...
  • Is Recovery From Mental Illness Possible?...
  • Helping Your Child Accept a New Baby...
  • Self-Esteem or Self-Validation?...
  • “Knock, Knock” “Who's There?” OPWDD: Welcoming the F...
  • Developmentally Disabled Employees Shine In The Workplace...
  • “I Take Care” — Mrs. Miriam Lubling, a”h...
  • The Hallmark of Klal Yisrael: A Caring Heart… Foster care ...
  • Redefining strength...
  • Sustaining the Excitement of the First Year of Marriage...
  • No Complaints...
  • No Shidduch Left Behind...
  • Statewide Project Continues Offering Services to Sandy Victi...
  • 75th Anniversary of the Horrors of Kristallnacht...
  • Etta at OHEL Dedicates Fourth Group Home...
  • Staten Island Jewish victims of Hurricane Sandy Still in Nee...
  • A Slice of Home: Through the eyes of a foster child...
  • Ask Sarah: Newly Married & Worried About Divorce...
  • As New Year Approaches, N.Y. Community Devastated by Hurrica...
  • Oniomania: A Look into the Minds of Compulsive Shoppers...
  • Teens and Saturday Nights: A Parenting Approach...
  • The Loss of a Dream...
  • Help! My Adolescent is Out of Control!...
  • Protecting Our Children: Does a Bakery Have a Soul?...
  • Who Am I? Standing at the precipice of death longing for sta...
  • Nobody Quite Knew What to do With Yaakov...
  • Understanding the Coordination between Early Intervention an...
  • Understanding your "peckel", your packet of problems...
  • Life for Frum Women in domestic violence shelters...
  • United We Stand: The Impact of Disabilities on Marriage...
  • Unique Needs of Children in Foster Care...
  • The Success Story that Finally Happened...
  • It’s a painful process to watch. We joke about it all the ...

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