| Family First Feature |

Dream Big, Be Real

Marriage is a big step for anyone. When the two spouses have Down syndrome, it’s the cornerstone of an incredible story

Where were you in July 2005? If you were reading Mishpacha during that long-ago summer, you might recall a story about a young girl from Los Angeles named Danielle Magady. What made Danielle’s story so special is not that she has Down syndrome, but that she had just graduated from L.A.’s Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov /
Ohr Eliyahu, where she had been a fully included member of her class since preschool. As she spoke about her hopes for the future, Danielle listed the dreams of any Bais Yaakov girl: seminary, a year in Israel, marriage.

Family First recently touched base with Danielle and her family to see where she — and her dreams — are today.

Welcome to DreamLand

There’s something about Los Angeles that encourages people to dream big. How else to explain how two down-to-earth transplanted Midwesterners dared to dream that their first child, born with Down syndrome in 1991, would grow up to be a happily married woman?

It took a while to get to that point, though. When Danielle’s parents, Holly and Terry Magady, first heard the news, they had to digest it. It was Pesach and Shabbos, just a few days after their new daughter’s birth, and they couldn’t reach out to family and friends or even speak to a social worker — there was no one on duty. They both remember feeling very alone.

“At first all I could see was her disability,” Holly recalls. “But she was my child. Little by little, as I got to know her, Down syndrome became just one of the parts of her. It wasn’t front and center anymore.”

Terry remembers walking through the halls of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center looking for someone to talk to. It was only after he returned to work that he received a first glimmer of hope — which came in the form of a phone call from Rav Noach Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah.

Terry, originally from Kansas City, Missouri, came to California to attend college. Holly, a Skokie, Illinois native, arrived there after finishing graduate school. They both ended up in L.A., and in the 1980s, they started attending classes at Aish HaTorah, which had only recently opened a branch in the city. They were one of the first couples to marry in the L.A. Aish community.

According to Terry, it wasn’t what Rav Weinberg said that gave him comfort; it was what he did: He put Terry in contact with Jeanne Warman. Mrs. Warman, who gave birth to a son with a severe disability in 1958, a time when there were few options for these children, had spearheaded a grassroots effort in the New York area to develop caring facilities for people with intellectual and developmental challenges. This became the basis for Makor Care and Services Network.

Terry says he still remembers the conversation very clearly. Mrs. Warman told him that one of Makor’s clients had just started a job as an aide in a kindergarten. Terry asked her, “Is it possible she could one day teach kindergarten?”

“I can honestly tell you I don’t know,” Mrs. Warman replied. “Because I thought this client couldn’t be a kindergarten aide.”

Wow. She doesn’t know, Terry recalls thinking. That means there’s potential.

Another early point of hope occurred when some friends told the Magadys that children with Down syndrome could be fully included in school — and eventually even get married.

The Magadys found this incredibly inspiring. “Danielle is also going to get married,” they told each other.

Match Made in Heaven

First, though, Danielle had to go to school — and the Magadys wanted a Jewish day school.

Before the 1990s, children with special needs were usually placed in separate classrooms, where they never mingled with the other kids; or they were part of a mainstreaming program where they joined the other kids at certain times of the day, such as for art class and lunch. In the early 1990s full inclusion in a child’s school and community was getting a big push in the non-Jewish world, but it hadn’t yet happened with Jewish day schools.

The Magadys decided to approach Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, the principal of Ohr Eliyahu, and ask him to accept Danielle into the school’s preschool program. “We were terrified,” Holly says. “We rehearsed everything we were going to say in the car: ‘This is not a chesed. Everyone will benefit from having Danielle Magady fully included in your school.’ ”

They never got a chance to recite their prepared speech, because Rabbi Goldberg preempted them. “I’m so glad you’re here. We’ve been talking about having a child with Down syndrome in our school.”

“It was a match made in Heaven,” Holly says.

Still, the Magadys had their work cut out for them. They hired an inclusion coordinator to work with the Ohr Eliyahu teachers and administration, as well as aides to give Danielle one-on-one help in the classroom. And they received a great deal of support from ETTA, an L.A.-based organization that provides services for people with disabilities.

“It was HaKadosh Baruch Hu Who made it happen,” Terry says. He explains that before Danielle was born he’d been working as a real estate lawyer and making an ordinary salary. After Danielle’s birth he switched gears and founded The Elder Law Center, where he helps families with complex legal issues involving the elderly, and people with disabilities. His law practice took off just in time to pay for all the extra expenses.

Danielle flourished at Ohr Eliyahu. It was true she couldn’t keep up academically in every subject, and it was tough when some of the other girls didn’t accept her. But with time she became “one of the girls,” and two decades later she’s still good friends with many of her Ohr Eliyahu classmates.

After Ohr Eliyahu, Danielle went to Bais Yaakov Los Angeles, a regular high school. Then she spent two years in Jerusalem, where she attended a seminary program for girls with special needs at Midreshet Darkaynu, which is part of the Lindenbaum seminary in Talpiyot.

“And what do Bais Yaakov girls do after they finish seminary?” Terry asks. “They look for work and they start shidduchim.”

A Colorful Search

Danielle found work right away as an administrative assistant at Ohr Eliyahu. Finding a shidduch took longer. The shadchanim the Magadys met with were cordial. But when they asked the standard question — Do you want a learner or an earner? — the Magadys knew there was a disconnect. “It was like I was speaking a foreign language,” Terry says. “I’d say, ‘Down syndrome. Daughter. Marriage.’ And it just didn’t register.”

Terry started making cold calls to yeshivos, asking if any of their boys had a brother with special needs. He also called organizations for people with disabilities, which is how he and Danielle wound up attending a Midwest Family Shabbaton in Chicago sponsored by Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s international organization for people with disabilities.

Throughout the shabbaton, Terry, who describes himself as a “hunter,” kept his eyes focused on finding a husband for Danielle. And he knew just the type of guy he wanted: a high-functioning boy with a disability who was the right age and wearing a yeshivish-looking white buttoned-down shirt.

But even though he kept his eyes peeled, none of the boys appealed to him. He particularly recalls a certain young man who was wearing yellow. Yellow! Terry and Danielle went back to L.A. emptyhanded.

The punchline? A few years later Danielle married the young man who loves yellow. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

After the shabbaton, Holly and Terry tried again to find a shadchan. This time they found one in Lakewood. Leah Spiegel worked with people with disabilities and really believed in the cause.

In the meantime, Danielle began working at Camp Lavi, Yachad’s summer camp for girls, in Pennsylvania. Yachad also had a camp nearby for boys, Camp Morasha. The Magadys told the camp organizers that Danielle wanted to get married, so it would be great if she could meet boys around her age. Then Mrs. Spiegel also came up with a suggestion: Shlomo Meyers, who just happened to be working at Camp Morasha. The Yachad staff got to work, and Danielle and Shlomo had their first date.

“I Saw an Angel”

Shlomo grew up in Chicago, where the Keshet organization provides educational programs for schoolkids with disabilities, which follow the mainstreaming model, as well as programs for adults. Shlomo attended the Keshet program at Solomon Schechter Day School and the high school program at Ida Crown Jewish Academy.

When he was 18, Shlomo told his mother, Shalva Meyers, that he was ready to get a job. Shlomo approached Rabbi Yirmiyahu Spector, a rebbi at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, explaining he knew how to do things like fax and photocopy and do errands. Rabbi Spector told Shlomo to write a résumé, and he’d pass it on. “But don’t count on it,” Rabbi Spector said.

The school’s principal, Rabbi Eli Samber, agreed to interview Shlomo and was impressed. But he explained that the school’s board of directors did the hiring, not him. According to Shalva, Shlomo wasn’t discouraged: “He never thought the answer could be no.”

When the school called back, it was to offer Shlomo a job. He would be responsible for doing the administrative tasks the staff rarely had time to do. “It was a real job, not a chesed,” says Shalva, adding that the school, which emphasizes the importance of good middos as well as academic excellence, was excited to have Shlomo on board, so students would see diversity in action. “The school paid him a regular salary. He attended staff meetings. He really thrived there.”

Now that Shlomo had a job, he wanted more independence. He moved into a group home for eight high-functioning young Jewish men with jobs.

“He was more prepared to live on his own than most individuals,” says Shalva, explaining that all her seven children had to help with the housework when they were growing up. For instance, when they started high school, they had to do their own laundry. They also had to keep their bedrooms reasonably neat and follow the “no eating in their room” rule.

“His siblings expected Shlomo to be like them,” she adds. “If it was his turn to sweep the floor, he knew he’d better do it. Understanding there had to be rules helped Shlomo at the group home and in his marriage.”

Unlike the Magadys, Shalva admits that when Shlomo was growing up, she never thought he’d get married. But on the day his sister Hadassa walked to the chuppah, he joyfully told Shalva, “I’m next!”

Shalva admits that she was taken aback. But she explains that soon after Shlomo was born she attended a panel discussion where four men with Down syndrome spoke. One of them gave advice for how parents should answer the question, “Mommy, can I—?” The speaker emphasized that no matter how outlandish the dream might sound, the parents shouldn’t say no. Instead, the man suggested, they should reply, “Let’s think about it.”

“I filed that advice away in my deepest drawer,” Shalva says. “I was aware that Shlomo’s emotional development was the same as any other child. He loved his siblings as much as they loved him. He wanted friends like any child wants friends. So when Shlomo told me he wanted to get married, I reminded myself that HaKadosh Baruch Hu orchestrates the world. I decided I wouldn’t press it, but I wouldn’t put up obstacles either.”

“Nineteen is a little young to get married,” she answered Shlomo. “Okay,” he replied. “But I’m next.”

A few years later, a shadchan approached Shlomo about being a staff member at Yachad’s Camp Morasha. He wasn’t interested. The shadchan called back and mentioned there would be some really fun activities, like a helicopter ride. Shlomo still wasn’t interested. Then the shadchan called a third time and said there would be an opportunity to meet girls working at Yachad’s Camp Lavi.

“I’m going,” he told Shalva.

The day Shlomo met Danielle, he called his mom and said, “I saw an angel. I met my wife.”

“Shlomo, you don’t get married because you met an angel. You need to get to know her,” she answered.

“I knew Shlomo could do it. I didn’t know if I could do it,” Shalva admits. “My motto had been, ‘Let’s think about it.’ That was a statement, not a commitment. Now I had to commit.”

To the Chuppah and Beyond

Shlomo and Danielle met periodically during the next two years, sometimes in L.A. and sometimes in Chicago. Early on, both sides agreed that if the shidduch worked out, the young couple would live in L.A. Consequently, a major consideration was whether Shlomo felt able to leave Chicago — leave his family, his friends, his community, and his job of eight years — and start over in a new place.

Finally, in 2014, Shlomo was ready to propose. He and Danielle were married on June 29, surrounded by hundreds of family members and friends.

If this were a Hollywood movie, the happy ending fadeout would happen here. But this was real.

“After the chasunah,” Holly says, “I was like, oh my gosh, what have we done? Danielle had never had to deal on her own with another person who has a disability. And there were always people who would cut her slack. Now she had to figure out how to live with someone who also had Down syndrome — someone who was also her husband. It was huge.”

While Shalva says the transition to L.A. was initially hard for Shlomo, he did settle into the community. “It took a few years, but today L.A. is his home,” Shalva shares. “And he loves Danielle. When Rabbi Chaim Goldwag, a colleague from work, told him that ‘a happy wife is a happy life,’ Shlomo didn’t consider this just a nice sentiment. He’s a very black-and-white person, so he took this as Hashem’s plan. It’s an obligation. It’s something you have to keep in mind, always.”

The young couple needed support navigating the challenges of everyday life, which Holly and Terry, who live just a few blocks away, happily provided. They also receive support from ETTA’s Supportive Living Services (SLS).

“SLS provides as much support as a person needs to live as independently as possible,” Holly explains. “Someone comes to the apartment a few afternoons a week and helps Shlomo and Danielle with meal planning and cooking, shopping, making doctor appointments — any of the things a person would need to live.”

“I have a different way of looking at it,” Terry says. “When someone hears the word ‘help,’ they could be thinking of doing a chesed. But I compare the services Danielle and Shlomo receive to having a personal manager or a concierge. It’s just like wealthy people who don’t like doing the grocery shopping — they have a concierge who does it for them. The concierge is facilitating their life. If wealthy people can have this, why not people with special needs?”

COVID-19 was a definite bump in the road. The isolation was very hard for Shlomo and Danielle, who thrive on socializing with family and friends. Shlomo, ever the optimist — and go-getter who likes to keep busy — responded by starting a backyard cleaning business.

Now that the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us, Danielle and Shlomo have returned to their regular jobs. Danielle works twice a week at YULA Girls High School, and twice a week at Ohr Eliyahu. During the summer she teaches Zumba at ETTA’s summer program for people with disabilities. Shlomo works at Gindi Maimonides Academy. He’s also a public speaker, and he has spoken at several shuls in the community.

They’ve also returned to their active social lives. Danielle still gets together with her classmates, while Shlomo has formed his own friendships within the community, some of which are purely social in nature, and some of which are based on learning together. For instance, he has a regular chavrusa on Sundays when he and a friend learn Chumash.

The two usually go to Chicago for Chol Hamoed Pesach and Succos to be with Shlomo’s family — “Just like other married couples who go to visit their families,” Shlomo says — while they enjoy spending a regular Shabbos with family and friends in L.A. In fact, when we spoke via Zoom, Shlomo said he and Danielle were having friends over for a Shabbos meal that week. When I asked who was doing the cooking, Shlomo replied, with a huge smile, “We’re ordering in!”

Is It for Everyone?

As Shlomo and Danielle look forward to their ninth wedding anniversary, there’s no question they’ve made a success of their married life. But is it realistic to dream that every child with Down syndrome will one day marry?

“There are plenty who can get married, but I can’t say every person can,” Holly comments. “First, there’s such a range within Down syndrome in terms of the person’s capabilities. And we all know what it takes to be married. A couple has to have a certain emotional maturity to be able to handle a relationship. Second, the family has to be fully committed to their child getting married. It means welcoming a second person with a disability into your life. So you have to know your child’s capabilities — and your own.”

Terry is more optimistic. “If a person with Down syndrome or some other disability wants to be married, yes! Yes, with an exclamation mark! You can make it happen.”

They both agree it’s important to stay away from the naysayers — including people in the medical field who claim to know definitively what your child will or will not be able to do in the future — and surround yourselves with people who are supportive.

But what if a family lives in a community that doesn’t have an ETTA or a Keshet — an organization that can help the family? Can it still happen?

“You’ll have to build your own infrastructure,” Terry says. “But it can be done. It just takes an attitude of let’s make it happen together.”


In Their Own Words

My talk with Shlomo and Danielle Meyers via Zoom was punctuated by lots of laughter, as well as serious talk. Here are edited highlights from the conversation.

I understand your first date was at a basketball court. Why there?

Shlomo: I didn’t know Danielle also liked basketball, but I thought it would be nice to do something together. I used to play basketball years ago.

Danielle: Me, too. I shot my first basket when I was two or three years old.

Shlomo, how did you know Danielle was the one for you?

Shlomo: It was because when I saw Danielle, I saw an angel. It was love at first sight for me. I knew she was the right person. No matter how hard things are, Danielle is the angel in my life.

And, Danielle, how did you know Shlomo was the right one?

Danielle: Well, actually, I’d never been in love before. And I didn’t know how it felt until I met Shlomo.

Could you tell he had good middos?

Danielle: Yes. And I was looking to get married. My parents wanted me to have my independence and personal life. And now I have it.

Shlomo, I understand you had to leave everything in Chicago to move to L.A. Was that difficult?

Shlomo: The beginning is always going to be hard. I want to remember just the good times.

After you were married, how did you figure out who’s going to do the cooking and the other things around the house?

Shlomo: Before the virus thing, we took turns with who is doing what. Then I did a lot of things, because I’m not lazy. No. I do not mind cleaning up. I’m an organized person. But we all have different ways of living, and cleaning every day is not my style!

I understand, Shlomo, that you like to learn Torah. Can you tell me about that?

Shlomo: Maybe I could explain that. The thing is — and I’m speaking for myself and not for anybody else — that reading Chumash is not easy. As you probably heard, I have a disability. I was born with Down syndrome. So it’s hard for a guy like me, who did not know or understand how to say the Hebrew words. And the thing is, I learn things differently. So going to a class or a shiur is hard for me. But I love to learn. And I love being Jewish!

I also love to watch movies, Disney movies. And I love being around people. I learn about life by being around people. It means so much to me. I am an emotional kind of person. But I am still a person, like anybody. I am a great guy!

Danielle, do you agree he’s a great guy?

Danielle (laughing): Yeah.

Shlomo, when you said you love being Jewish, what do you love?

Shlomo: I love Chanukah. I love Shavuos — the cheesecake! I love going back to Chicago for Chol Hamoed Pesach and Succos to see my family and friends. I love being with Danielle and her family. They are a blessing in my life. Really. And I have met so many families here in Los Angeles.

You two have been married almost nine years. Do you have any tips for young couples for how to stay happily married?

Shlomo: We love each other. We are always going to be there for each other. Being together is really a huge blessing. Even during times when it is not so easy, we always figure things out. Mostly my wife figures things out. But we count on each other. And we laugh together.

Danielle (laughing): Shlomo is on a roll today.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 836)

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