By Dr. Stanley Goldstein
I view life as a rollercoaster ride with, hopefully, more ups than downs. We each have a peckelah (a package of negative life experiences, as said in Yiddish), no matter how much greener the grass seems on the other side.
Our personal peckelah was the birth of our son Jonah, affectionately known as JJ, who was born with Down syndrome. He was otherwise healthy, a blessing not appreciated by us at that time because it was overshadowed by his primary diagnosis. This was 22 years ago, when the general view was shunning these children and often putting them in foster care or up for adoption.
At his birth, my wife said to me that he looked like he has Down syndrome; with my positive attitude I thought she was mistaken. It was not until his seventh day of life that we learned his karyotype (genetic testing) indicated he had Down syndrome. At that time, as parents, we did not know what to do, whom to speak to, or where to turn. JJ’s future and ours as a family with five other children looked gloomy, murky, and dark. It was unknown what the future would bring for him and whether the sun would ever shine for us again.
Our friends and relatives, out of concern for us, swamped us with information: read this, do this, speak to this person, maybe the doctors are wrong. I sifted through all the information and decided to speak to one person, Dr. Reuven Feuerstein, who had a school in Jerusalem for children with disabilities. He was a clinical, developmental and cognitive psychologist, known for his theory of intelligence which states, “It is not fixed,” but rather modifiable. This conversation occurred on JJ’s seventh day of life, one day before his b’ris (circumcision). My several-hour discussion with him can be summed up by his closing statement: “You can take a child like JJ, place him in a room full of toys and a nurse and he will be happy, or you can place him in the real world and challenge him. No one knows the potential of any newborn child. And mazal tov.”
These words that instantly brought the sun back to my life. We as a family decided this would be our game plan for JJ — to give him all the opportunities of life, to challenge and stimulate him so he, as our other children, could reach his potential. I often joke with my children, saying that JJ has brought us more nachas than they have. Through multiple available resources, physical, social, educational, summer programs, family stimulation, and inclusion, JJ has reached heights that have been well beyond our wildest dreams and expectations. He has been able to participate in summer sleepaway camp and even had the opportunity to spend two gap years in Israel at Yeshiva Darkaynu. With all this, JJ has become an independent, happy, social, friendly, caring, funny individual with many abilities rather than disabilities, and with multiple acquaintances wherever he goes.
All this came to a sudden stop when he completed his two-year program in Israel in June 2016. We realized that while he was somewhat independent, he still needed to grow and be stimulated educationally, spiritually, and socially to become totally independent — preferably in a Jewish environment, just like the opportunities afforded to our other children. There were no such programs for young adults with disabilities. So he entered a day-hab program, which took care of time. We knew he could achieve more. This made us frustrated as parents.
In the spring of 2017 I received an email with the subject: The Makor College Experience at the Wilf Campus of Yeshiva University. Thank G-d I was curious enough to read it. I read it slowly, trying to absorb every word. I could not believe what I was reading. As I reread it to make sure it said what I thought it did, I became short of breath with excitement. This was JJ’s winning lottery ticket that we were looking for. I could not wait to tell my wife about this possible opportunity for JJ. Our life’s dream and goal for JJ, to challenge him in the real world, was being answered. The program description was a perfect fit for JJ, as well as other young adults with disabilities. He needed to fill out an application and have an interview. Later, I watched him read his letter of acceptance, which brought a smiling glow to his face and tears of joy to mine. In my wildest of dreams I would never had thought that JJ would be able to attend a college program, let alone at Yeshiva University, from which I, all my children, and many other family members graduated. We are blessed to be able to continue the YU connection.
The Makor Yeshiva University College Experience provides individuals with intellectual disabilities the ability to be part of the YU community while gaining skills and exploring opportunities as they transition to a life of independence. It includes general educational, social, and physical programs in limudei kodesh and secular studies that are geared toward the individual’s needs while living in an independent Makor housing dormitory adjacent to the YU campus.
It was the vision of Makor and Dr. Stephen Glicksman that was the impetus for this trailblazing, innovative program. They put it out there and challenged the Jewish community. They approached Yeshiva University with this idea and have worked in partnership to make this program a reality. It has been a win-win situation for Makor, for Yeshiva University and its students and faculty, for the young adults and the families of those accepted into and attending the program, and for the Jewish community.
The program is a typical YU schedule, with Jewish studies in the morning and general studies in the afternoon. There are many opportunities to interact with the YU students. JJ has a YU student as a chavrusa and participates in a number of YU clubs and events. He is excited to be able to participate in campus life. He attends YU minyanim, has his meals in the YU cafeteria or adjacent restaurants, and often attends the YU basketball games as a loyal fan cheering the Maccabees. He loves living with his friends in the Makor housing where they are responsible for cooking dinner together several times a week and cleaning up. He loves the campus life. He spends independent time in the library and makes use of the YU gym at night by playing basketball, working out, or swimming. JJ is responsible for keeping his own schedule — waking up on time, going to minyanim, being on time to class, taking care of his physical needs, and going to sleep at an appropriate time.
The partnership of the Makor College Experience Program with Yeshiva University has resulted in a symbiotic relationship where everyone gains — the Makor students, the YU students, and the Jewish community.
JJ’s future continues to be bright because of the Makor–YU partnership. We will always remember Dr. Reuven Feuerstein’s advice when he told us 22 years ago to put him in the real world and challenge him. The vision of Makor and Dr. Stephen Glicksman, along with the partnership of Yeshiva University, has given our young adult children with disabilities the ability to transition to a life of independence and be gainfully employed. This is what we as parents have dreamed of and what we want for all our children.