By Dini Harris
Parents dangle prizes in front of their children to encourage success and growth. Candies and a dime satisfy small children with small accomplishments. Older children with bigger accomplishments earn larger rewards. And sometimes, a giant, life-changing achievement nets the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
This past summer, Mr. Yitzchak and Mrs. Michelle Feiglin celebrated their son’s completion of a successful year in yeshivah with a safari in Tanzania. For 21-year-old Zalman, born with Down syndrome, a year of living independently in a different country was indeed a triumph.
After recovering from their initial shock over their son’s diagnosis, Yitzchak and Michelle of Melbourne, Australia, were determined that Zalman would be raised to be the very best that he could be — a refrain they espoused when raising all of their six children.
So, if mother’s milk was the best thing for Zalman because it boosts a baby’s intelligence and immunity against allergies, his mother made sure that that was what he drank — even though his low muscle tone and respiratory problems made it impossible for him to suck.
During the first year of his life, Zalman’s parents focused on his physical health. But then Michelle, a librarian by profession, started researching strategies for encouraging his mental cognition. She quickly realized that communication — talking, reading and writing — were the tools that would enable her son to function in the wider world.
Professor Reuven Feuerstein, a clinical, developmental and cognitive psychologist who firmly believed that there are no limitations to the abilities of special-needs children, was mentioned to the family when Zalman was very young. He served as a mentor to Michelle and Yitzchak. He visited Melbourne several times while Zalman and his parents traveled to Eretz Yisrael when Zalman was one. They corresponded by mail regularly after that.
When Zalman was only 2 years old, Yitzchak and Michelle traveled from Melbourne to Sydney to attend an international conference for Down’s syndrome. The speeches and conferences they had joined galvanized them. Based on what she learned, Michelle made flashcards to play with Zalman and teach him how to read, starting with words that had tangible significance: Abba, Ima, and the names of Zalman’s siblings.
Zalman learned how to read English at a relatively young age, but Michelle wasn’t satisfied. The language specialist with whom she consulted felt that he should be able to cope with two languages, so Zalman learned to read Hebrew at the local Chabad school where he was mainstreamed.
At His Own Pace
Zalman’s parents spurred him from milestone to milestone with much effort and creativity. When it came time for Zalman’s bar mitzvah, his parents were determined that he would get an aliyah and read the haftarah.
As with all of Zalman’s accomplishments, the process of learning the haftarah took coordinated efforts. A very patient bar mitzvah teacher color-coded the haftarah text and worked with Zalman at his own pace. Zalman’s speech therapist attended some of these sessions to help with clarity and diction.
In addition, because Zalman was becoming increasingly anxious about performing before a crowd, he worked with a psychologist. His mother also role-played the event using dolls, and a friend, planning to be away on the day of the bar mitzvah, came to shul to listen to a dress rehearsal before the actual event.
“When he leined in shul beforehand, he was word perfect,” says Michelle. “But on Shabbos — maybe we invited too many people — he couldn’t do it. He said the brachah, but my husband read the haftarah.
“But the next day, we had a bar mitzvah luncheon in our garden and Zalman spoke clearly and comfortably. Because his haftarah occurs twice a year, he has read it since then in different minyanim.”
When Zalman was about 17, his parents realized that his school education wasn’t working for him anymore. His class wasn’t going to graduate for about another three years, but Zalman’s family marked the end of his formal education with a personalized graduation ceremony. They invited Zalman’s friends, school principal and favorite teachers. The beautiful event was inspiring and — most importantly — meaningful to Zalman.
Now that Zalman was finished with school, Michelle was free to create her own program for her son. She and Yitzchak sat down to figure out what they wanted to focus on. They hired a teacher to come teach him limudei kodesh in their home three times a week. They wanted him to be physically fit and learn employment and social skills, so they built a program that would include these abilities.
Each day Zalman looked through the daily paper with his parents and discussed local and international news. Then they would do the word puzzles together.
“The other option would be for him to go to a sheltered environment or daycare,” says Michelle. “But in that environment, the participants never learn to interact with the real world. They never learn to go on a bus by themselves. They find a comfort zone and stay right there until they’re 65.
“Zalman wouldn’t have reached where he is today without all this education. It forces him to be independent.”
Yeshivah and Safari
Zalman was learning and growing in his individualized program, but then his parents heard about something that could further boost his personal growth. Yeshivas Darkaynu was established for English-speaking boys with developmental disabilities. A side-stream program of Yeshivas Har Tzion in Alon Shvut, it is embedded in the main yeshivah.
The boys in Darkaynu daven and eat together with the boys in the main program and even have chavrusos together with them. During the rest of the day, they have a vocational program within the local community and have their own trips, activities and shiurim.
The Feiglins visited the program a number of times and knew that a year in this yeshivah would help Zalman gain further independence. But they were worried — could he do it?
When one of their sons moved to Eretz Yisrael, settling in Tekoa, near the yeshivah, the Feiglins were hopeful that with support from his brother, Zalman could succeed without them for a year.
But Zalman was hesitant. He was anxious and scared of being so far away from family.
His father offered a proverbial carrot: If Zalman would successfully complete the Darkaynu program, his parents would take him on a safari to see the Great Wildebeest Migration in Tanzania.
Zalman is an avid nature-lover. Over the years, he has watched hundreds of nature programs and the like depicting wildlife in their natural surroundings. He knows an incredible amount of information about different types of animals on land and in the sea.
He had seen films about the migration of the zebras and wildebeest in the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya. During this migration, the animals must cross the Mara River to reach greener pastures. Thousands of animals cross while crocodiles wait hungrily on the riverbed beneath them.
Yitzchak and Michelle learned about this migration from Zalman. He talked a lot about it and dreamed of seeing it. And this dream spurred him to agree to attend the Darkaynu program.
Will He Do It?
Last Sukkos, Michelle flew with Zalman to Israel on Chol Hamoed and spent the last days of Yom Tov with her son in Tekoa. A few days later, she took Zalman to yeshivah.
“Honestly,” she says, “at that point, Zalman was very comfortable. He let me go off very easily. He was quite relaxed. I was the apprehensive one.”
During the year, Zalman took the life skills he had learned at home and implemented them in a new setting — while adding new skills the entire year. He learned how to cook Israeli food, relate to new friends and speak some basic Hebrew. He volunteered at a local nursery school, in the IDF and at a food pantry.
“I can’t deny that there were lots of obstacles that cropped up along the way,” Michelle says. “Throughout the year, I had a bag packed, because I was sure I was going to get a phone call asking me to come pick up Zalman.
“But the staff of the yeshivah was wonderful. As long as a participant was gaining from the program, they were prepared to work with him. Instead of getting that dreaded phone call, I got an email asking if we would consider sending Zalman for shanah bet!”
Making It Work
Zalman did it! Now his parents had to keep their end of the bargain. They needed to create a safari trip to Tanzania that would provide kosher, chalav Yisrael food that’s gluten free (Zalman suffers from celiac disease) and a Shabbos experience.
“I found out about group Jewish tours,” says Michelle, “but the timing wasn’t right. It made sense for us to take this trip on my way back from picking up Zalman in Israel.
“I ended up finding a company that created a tour just for us. They have enough Jewish customers to make it worthwhile for them to dedicate a kosher kitchen for their needs. They hooked us up with Doron, a religious man from Johannesburg who was our personal chef. He brought all the ingredients he needed from South Africa.”
One Shabbos, Michelle’s mother visited the family. Talking about the upcoming trip, she asked Michelle if she was interested in animals.
“I told her, ‘not so much, but it interests Zalman, so I’m going. Why don’t you join us?’ I could see her mind ticking.”
Michelle wasn’t sure if a safari was an advisable trip for her mother, but on Monday morning, Bobba, as Zalman calls her, was already on the phone with her physician’s office to find out about getting the necessary vaccinations. She was soon signed up as a participant in their tour.
Hashem’s Beautiful World
On Wednesday, June 14, Michelle flew with Zalman from Tel Aviv direct to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and from there to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, where they met Yitzchak and Bobba, excited to start their safari adventure.
During their week in Africa, the Feiglins spent 8-10 hours a day in a four wheel-drive vehicle driven by a local Tanzanian tour guide, jouncing and bouncing along the unpaved roads in three different nature reserves in Tanzania. “My insides are doing aerobics!” is how Bobba described the experience in a note home.
The rides were long and arduous, but the sights they saw were incredible. On their way to the Serengeti to see the animal crossing, the Feiglins stopped at the Ngorongoro Crater, which hosts the largest collection of animals in the entire world. They also saw Lake Manyara, with its giant fig and mahogany trees, wildlife and birds such as flamingos, eagles and kingfishers.
Seeing the animals crossing the Mara River was worth the effort. “You could see the animals fighting within themselves,” says Michelle. “It was hunger vs. terror. They walked towards the river, because they were hungry. Then they stopped and hesitated because of the crocodiles. They went back and forth many times. Eventually, hunger won out and they crossed.”
There were animals everywhere: lions, leopards, baboons, ibex, wildebeests, zebras, elephants, giraffes and ostriches. It was Zalman’s dream come true. The Feiglins did not get out of the vehicle in the nature reserves, because it would have been much too dangerous.
The days were physically hard, but at least at night the Feiglins enjoyed modern, high-standard accommodations. The hippopotamuses they heard and the monkeys trying to share their meals, as well as the stunning views, were the only things that reminded them where they were!
Michelle, Yitzchak and Bobba all agree that they took this special trip only because it was so important to Zalman. However, they also agree that it gave them a special appreciation for Hashem’s creations.
Now that Sukkos has passed, Zalman is scheduled to attend his “shanah bet” (second year) at Darkaynu.
What’s in store for him when he’s done?