Breaking the Stigma

Last week an acquaintance of mine asked me to take ten minutes to listen to the recording of a speech which he was forwarding to me. I started to listen to a strong articulate voice describing her childhood as one of eleven siblings, four of whom were handicapped. As I continued to listen I could not believe what I was hearing. This woman was sharing with the audience a topic which has always been swept under the carpet in our community, mainly for fear of ruining chances for good shidduchim.

She didn’t speak about the pain, rather about her love for her handicapped siblings.

She didn’t speak about what she missed out on in life, rather what she had gained.

She didn’t complain, rather she thanked Hashem for the opportunity to grow in character.

She spoke with sincerity and integrity, at times breaking down with deep emotion.

I wracked my brains trying to figure out what kind of family she came from. I didn’t recognize her name. Only when she thanked her parents for everything they had done and achieved in life, only then did I realize who she was.

I want to salute you, Mrs. Hindy Mizrahi, for your courage in doing something so vital and so long overdue in our community, for fighting the stigma.

Following, dear readers, are excerpts of the speech given at Ohel’s 43rd Annual Gala, last Sunday night. It is simply more than incredible; a speech that is bound to change your mindset regarding handicapped children and adults forever:


 

“Why am I here at the podium? Because like all of you, I have a story. I’d like to share my story so that hopefully you will feel enlightened and educated. And if you are one of the people with a similar story, you won’t feel ashamed or alone.

“My story begins with a family, of kein ayin hara 11, who have received community rehabilitation, residential rehabilitation at an Ohel Bais Ezra Home established for four of my brothers.

“Therefore, I am looked at with both awe and skepticism. I am someone to socialize with and befriend, but not someone to get too close to or even marry, because my genes are considered blemished. My special brothers, who I would not trade for anything in the world, are considered imperfect and defective. I have seen people believe that they can dictate to G-d which challenges in life they want, but I have learnt that G-d only gives what He knows we can handle. It is up to us to rise to the occasion.

“Let me tell you the rest of my story. The story of what it was like growing up with four developmentally disabled brothers, two “regular” brothers and four “regular” sisters. I am told there is such a thing as sibling rivalry — that siblings are jealous of one another or fight so much they can hurt one another physically and mentally. I wouldn’t know — because in my family of eleven, we never fought, were never jealous and certainly never used words like “moron,” “stupid” or “crazy.” We defended each other, we cheered each other on. We knew from a young age what challenges really meant. While somebody poked fun at you for reading funny or not reading fast enough, we knew there were those who couldn’t read at all. So we coached each other, gave each other tips, and tried to help each other succeed.

“When a friend came over to play, and another sibling wanted to play along, we let them because we saw the hurt when one of our brothers waited for a friend to play with, but no one came.

“We were good to our friends, too. When we were captains of a sports team or brought our ball to play with at recess, we made sure everyone who wanted to play  got picked for a team, no matter their ability. Because we saw and felt rejection when one of our brothers sat on the sidelines, day after day, wishing to participate in the game.

“When we were counselors and color war captains, we made sure each person had a place and felt included, because we saw our brothers fight with everything they had, to be included and to be just like everyone else.

“We saw as young kids what it really meant for parents who want their kids to be the best that “they” can be and not what parents wanted. Who would have believed, that my father, a prominent Orthodox Rabbi of a large, illustrious community, and my mother, daughter of a world-renowned Rosh Yeshivah, would send four of their six boys to public school and set their goals as simply saying Shema and brachot every morning, slowly and clearly, and to greet everyone they meet with a nice shalom and a strong handshake, while looking them in the eye?

“We learned what responsibility as parents really meant as my parents would get up and daven with my brothers every morning and say kriat Shema with them every night. Even today, when they live in an Ohel home, they still daven with them, never relying on others to do what they believe needs to be done.

“We were reminded daily of the proper way to treat our parents as our brothers always listened to what my parents said, never spoke back or talked in a disrespectful manner. If I ever stepped out of line — even before my parents had a chance to discipline me — it was one of my special brothers who would say “Hindy, that is not the way you talk to a mother!” and how do you argue with someone who has limited intellect, and is right.

“More importantly, there was nothing any sibling could do to embarrass us, despite the many stares and comments we endured, because we really experienced very early on that being different still offers something unique to the family.

“In our home, there was never a bad morning, because every morning meant a new day, a new beginning — something to look forward to.

“We knew the importance of structure, because structure has a way of keeping things in line and manageable. But we learned very early on that life is unpredictable and you can plan and hope, but humans and children are not robots, and things sometimes happen and change just because.

“We learnt how to make sacrifices. Yes, it hurt that I couldn’t get a Cabbage Patch doll when all my friends had one. But if it meant my brother got an extra physical therapy lesson and he can now ride a bike, I was excited for him and learned to play with my friend’s doll.

“Lastly, and probably most important, I learned the true meaning of love. I learned what it means to love someone and not see their faults, and to love with no strings attached. Because in my brothers’ eyes, I am perfect. They love me for being me and expect nothing back.

“This past summer, we suffered the death of one of my special brothers, Moishe. A friend of mine who hadn’t had the opportunity to meet Moishe commented that he never saw grown men cry at a funeral like they did at Moishe’s. Over a thousand people were at his funeral, a few hundred at his grave site. Many canceled their vacations to be around for shivah as they mourned and felt Moishe’s loss, but only 12 people sat shivah because we were his kin. We were special.

“So the next time you meet someone who looks funny or acts funny, whose mental capacity is different, remember — they are not just a physical body with a gene or two that went wrong. They have a special story to tell, they have a unique story to share. Get to know them; get to know their parents and siblings. You will be transformed, you will be inspired, you will become special. This story has been my story for over 30 years, but many events happened these past few years that heightened the fact that I have a special story —  a story that needed to be told. This is not an honor that belongs to me alone.

“It is an honor I share with my siblings, my special siblings, because they helped make me who I am today. They made me worthy of receiving such an honor.

“It is an honor I share with my regular siblings because it is their story too — the same but different, as we were all affected differently based on our placement in the family and/or gender.

“It is an honor I share with my husband, siblings-in-law and their parents, because they didn’t see us as damaged goods but siblings of a beautiful story, a story they have come to love and accept as their own.

“It is an honor I share with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and dear friends because they realized a story like this can’t blossom in a vacuum, and they have, each, reached out and helped in their own way —  some even taking ownership for parts of the story.

“It is an honor that I give to my parents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Reisman, the true owners of the story. They are the master storytellers. Thirty-plus years ago when situations like this were kept hidden in the closet and not talked about, they realized they had a beautiful story to tell and brought it to the forefront. It is through them that this wonderful story all takes place. It is a credit to their outlook and acceptance of life and their guidance through life that a small story of young children became a grand story of grown adults.

“It is an honor that I along with my parents and siblings thank G-d for —  for He has chosen us to be the vehicle for which to tell his special story.”

Thank you, Mrs. Mizrahi.

Thank you, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Reisman.

Ruth Lichtenstein, Publisher

The proud mother of Leiby, a very special son