On Having a Special Needs Child: “I’m With Him”
Rabbi Dani and Dr. Jennie Goldstein’s son, Yehuda, was born in Brooklyn with significant developmental disabilities. These remarks were delivered last year by Rabbi Goldstein at Yehuda’s bar mitzvah in Neve Daniel, Israel, where the family now lives together with Yehuda’s three siblings. Despite the personal nature of this speech we bring this edited version to our readers with confidence that it has a global message concerning the inclusion of special needs children in our community. (These remarks were originally posted at WebYeshiva.org.)
A number of years ago, Jennie and I were discussing the people in our lives who had most influenced our thinking. Jennie, who went first, cited the Talner Rebbe, R. Yitzchak Twersky of Boston, zt”l, whose presence is felt deeply in our home, and Dr. Victor Fornari, her child psychiatry training director. But my choice was Yehuda, for a simple reason: Thirteen years ago, I thought two things. First, that I could control my children and make them turn out the way I want; and second, that Jennie and I had things handled pretty well by ourselves. Thirteen years later, I know that we don’t control anything, least of which, our children, and that without the kindness of others, we would never have survived. If I may, allow me to expand on these two ideas.
Yehuda Aryeh Goldstein was named after my father. In the history of naming children after people, and those who knew my father will no doubt concur, no eponym and namesake could be more different from one another, in almost every realm of human traits, than Yehuda Aryeh Goldstein, my father, and Yehuda Aryeh Goldstein, my son. My father earned his Masters and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University, was a distinguished professor of philosophy for over forty years, but was a reserved man who seemed more comfortable in the company of books than of human beings. Yehuda’s interest in Descartes, Hume and Kant is far less pronounced, but he is decidedly social, exuberant and affectionate. Together, the two Yehuda Aryeh’s make a perfect whole. Together, they have brought the world both wisdom and warmth.
Yet, on the day of Yehuda’s brit milah thirteen years ago, when we blessed him to go in the way of his scholarly namesake, to learn and to be a talmid hakham, we failed to remember the words of the Netziv. The reason we bless a child with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” is precisely because we don’t know what this child will be. People are different and they have different qualities. Biblical Ephraim was a scholar, but not everyone is; Menasheh’s talents manifested themselves in worldly matters. People are different and we should appreciate that (Netziv to Gen. 48:20).
Over the last thirteen years, we have seen Yehuda develop a unique relationship with Hashem, one that we might not have imagined. That relationship presents itself differently than what we observe in our other children, but it is no less real. Yehuda talks to Hashem, he sings to Him, he pleads with Him, and he dances with Him—“And [he] danced with all his might before God” (II Sam. 6:14). It is in fact most real, and something to which we all should aspire.
When, one Shabbat morning, he said to me: “Hashem used to talk to me loud, but then after he sent me to our family, Hashem talks to me soft.” Is that not a real religious insight? The truth is that it was said with such simplicity it spooked me. And that is why there is always a point during Yom Kippur Ne’ilah when I find myself looking up to Heaven, pointing to Yehuda and saying: “I’m with him.”
Over the last thirteen years, we have come to reject the notion that is heard from time to time in the religious community, that the purpose of people with disabilities is to enable “typical” people to be better people through the kindness and chesed we can perform for them. People with disabilities are not props in someone else’s life, nor are they mitzvah objects through which we can perform a ritual. They were created by Hashem, put on this earth to serve Him and Him alone, in the way that they can. In this regard they are tasked with the same ultimate purpose we all share.
There is a picture, taken at my nephew Yosef’s bar mitzvah, of Yehuda dancing with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l. Looking at the photograph of these two people together, hand in hand, drives the message home. People are different, and people are measured differently. But if a person is doing the best he can with what Hashem has given him, does any other measure really matter?
It makes me shudder to think that just two or three generations ago, conventional wisdom was to put the developmentally disabled into institutions away from society, instead of embracing and integrating what they can contribute to the mosaic of human experience.
But society has changed for the better, and in that vein, tonight’s celebration of Yehuda is all of ours equally together. And that brings me to the second idea—without the kindness of others, we would never have survived. And so, it is important to us that you all know how much we appreciate the many years of support we have received from so many people: members of our community and synagogue, family and friends. From rotational baby-sitting by cousins at Shabbat meals and family gatherings so Jennie and I could sit together at a table, to his special barber who is always careful to never once cut Yehuda’s “thinking bubble,” which is a big concern for him—so many people have been there with us along the way. In fact, every single one of the many people sharing in today’s celebration is here because you have played an essential role in Yehuda’s feeling of love, attachment and self-worth, and we thank you for being part of our lives.
Additionally, we have been fortunate and blessed by the dedicated staffs of the schools and programs that Yehuda has been enrolled in, especially in Efrat, the Nitzanim School and Shalva, who have provided him with both love and structure since we arrived in Israel. Every single person, without exception, whom we have encountered in the field of special education carries a sense of mission, dedication and kindness.
Words cannot describe our relationship with Susan Levin. I mean that literally. There is no word for a casual acquaintance who decides one day to adopt your son and cause, and become your champion and bedrock of support. On September 1, 2011, Yehuda’s first day of first grade, Susan decided that a boy should not be afraid of a dog, and a fairy tale relationship was born. Both Susan and John brought Yehuda into their life, going on walks with Tali, reading and hanging out. Over the last six years, Susan has been the most consistent presence in Yehuda’s life, seven days a week, and she is a friend to our daughter Temima as well. And of course: Tali. In those days, Yehuda had a lot of dedicated baby sitters, but he had no peers. I believe that Yehuda’s transition into socialization was facilitated through Tali, his first friend. Did I mention that Tali is Susan’s dog? Over the years, Yehuda has cultivated a group of peers, of friends he can play with on the same level—but while Yehuda’s friends always grow up, Tali never does. He is her boy, and their friendship is one of the most pure and wondrous relationships that I have ever witnessed.
Finally, we thank our daughter, Yehuda’s “big sister,” Temima. No one is idolized by Yehuda more than Temima and no one bears the brunt of his disability more than she. She worries about him, cares for him, laughs with him and loves him unconditionally.
Yehuda: Finally, your bar mitzvah is here! You are a grown boy, and not a small child. You say Shema Yisrael and Amen in shul and Shalom Aleichem at Kiddush Levana. You put on tefillin, you eat together with the family and not by the computer, and you can dress yourself. You are delightful and beloved and treat other people nicely. Mazal Tov, Yehuda. We love you!
Daniel Goldstein, formerly Rabbi of the Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, and teacher at WebYeshiva.org, is the Rav HaMidrasha at Midreshet AMIT in Jerusalem.