Gavi was homeless. Could we take him in?
Chesed is in my DNA. All my family members are involved in kiruv, whether for Jews who are far from Yiddishkeit or those who are close but could use connection, a kind word, or a Shabbos meal. When I entered adulthood, I decided to channel my chesed into a career that helps frum Jews. I trained to become a Care Manager, a career that enables me to have a deeply meaningful impact on individuals who are struggling with physical, mental, or emotional needs.
Over the years, my caseload has included many challenged adults who need to be guided and assisted to truly flourish. Many of them have eventually been able to marry, and whenever I attend one of their chasunahs, I am overcome with emotion. It is extremely gratifying to play a small part in helping them reach this milestone.
Some clients you’ll never forget, and Gavi Cohen is one of them. I met him when he was just ten years old, after his mother had tragically passed away from a terminal illness. Although Gavi’s father truly wanted to care for his only son, he was unable to do so optimally, as he himself was struggling with mental illness. So I began searching for a placement for Gavi. Since no extended family members were able to take him in, I was determined to find the next best thing: a family who would understand Gavi’s autistic needs and care for him like one of their own.
Thankfully, within a short time, I found the Davids, a wonderful couple who had cared for struggling children for years. Since they had already married off their own children, they were able to give themselves fully to Gavi. Initially, they agreed to take him in for a year or two until his father stabilized and was able to parent his son properly. But that was not meant to be, as Mr. Cohen’s condition only deteriorated.
Years passed, and the Davids were still caring for Gavi, who had by now grown into a fine young man in his late teens. Though Gavi still struggled with autism and an intellectual disability, he was for the most part well-integrated into society.
The Davids were getting older, though, so I realized that we needed to start planning for Gavi’s future. Who would care for him when the Davids were no longer able to? I brought up the subject with Mr. Cohen and the Davids, but each time, they swatted away my suggestion and insisted that Gavi was in great hands.
“I’m not insinuating that Gavi shouldn’t be in your care,” I told the Davids. “It’s just important for us to have a plan in case you can no longer care for him for any reason. It’s normal and highly recommended to get individuals like Gavi signed up on a list so that, if need be, they can join a Group Home, where they can live and get adequate support.”
“I don’t see why that’s needed,” Mrs. David said with a shrug. “If it ever comes to it, we’ll worry then. There’s no need for us to start this process, which I’m sure is quite complicated and lengthy.”
Mrs. David was right that getting an individual on the list was a long process, but her blasé attitude was seriously risky: If, chas v’shalom, the Davids could no longer care for Gavi, he would be virtually homeless. His aunts and uncles were elderly, and his father was still unable to care for him.
But none of my arguments or heartfelt pleas would change the staunch positions of either the Davids or Mr. Cohen.
In the middle of a busy workday, I received an unexpected call from Gavi. “Baruch Dayan HaEmes,” he bawled into the phone. “Mrs. David passed away in a hit-and-run accident. What am I going to do without her?”
My entire body froze. Mrs. David had been like a mother to Gavi. She had cared for him as if he were her own child, and Gavi was deeply attached to her. How was he going to recover from such a tremendous blow?
Throughout the shivah, I was there for Gavi and arranged for him to be out of the house for most of the day so that he wouldn’t fall into despair. Mr. David was a shell of his former self; he could barely cope with his own feelings, let alone be attentive to Gavi. With frightening clarity, I realized that I was now the only one in a position to help Gavi.
After the shivah, Mr. David sat down with me. In a broken voice, he told me he could no longer care for Gavi. “I feel terrible about it. Gavi is like a son to me, and I love him deeply. But I’m not in a good place emotionally, and I think it would be best for me to move to Florida, where some of my kids live.”
While I agreed that it was a smart move for Mr. David, I felt like I was being struck in the face. I had begged the Davids to start the process of adding Gavi to the list for placement in a group home, but they had been adamant that there was no need for it. Now I was proven right. Gavi had nowhere to go. He was homeless.
One thing I knew for certain: There was no way I was going to place Gavi in a temporary home while we waited for approval from a group home. How could I do that to him when he was already so broken?
The only person left in Gavi’s life whom he knew and trusted was me. So, late one night, I mustered up the courage to ask my husband if we could open our home to him, just temporarily, while we waited for a spot in a group home. “Please consider it,” I asked him earnestly, desperation in my eyes. “It’s been so hard for Gavi, and I want him to be in a loving and supportive environment.”
My husband raised a brow and didn’t say anything for a long time. After a prolonged silence, he finally asked, “But what about Yochanon*?”
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. Yochanon. Why didn’t I think of that before?
Yochanon is the oldest child of our son, Shmueli. My son’s marriage was rocky from the beginning, and after many years of trying to make it work, he and my daughter-in-law divorced. Of their three children, Yochanon took it the hardest. He seldom smiled, and his eyes flashed with anger. His overwhelming resentment toward his parents bled into resentment toward everyone in his life.
Yochanon and his siblings lived with their mother after the divorce. But when his mother remarried, Yochanon’s anger increased tenfold. The already tenuous living situation now became unbearable. It was clear Yochanon needed his own space, but he couldn’t move in with his father for various reasons. So my husband and I offered to have Yochanon stay with us, especially since we share a close bond with him.
It turned out to be the perfect arrangement. Baruch Hashem, we had the space for Yochanon in our large home and, as empty nesters, we were able to give him our undivided attention. Since Yochanon’s yeshivah was only a few blocks away, he was able to gain a healthy independence. And at home, he had the privacy he needed to process all his feelings.
But how would things change if we let Gavi Cohen move in? Before making such a drastic move, we knew we needed to ask our grandson if he was comfortable with it.
I explained the situation to Yochanon and asked for his thoughts. He shrugged his shoulders with tired indifference. “Whatever you want. I don’t care.” That was what Yochanon was like these days. Nothing seemed to interest him at all. He remained in a perpetual state of gloom, no matter what my husband and I tried to do to lift his spirits.
My husband and I knew it would be an enormous undertaking to have Gavi move in with us, but we were committed and excited to take on this tremendous mitzvah. It was a real team effort — my husband pitched in to help Gavi whenever needed. He accompanied him to shul, made sure he had a seat, and assumed the role of a father for the duration of his stay with us.
Gavi was in a vulnerable and delicate state after Mrs. David’s passing, so he was infinitely grateful to us for taking him in. He would thank me profusely for the most basic of things, like warm dinner or freshly laundered clothes. Whatever love or warmth we conveyed toward Gavi was matched by his vocal appreciation in return. Slowly, he began to heal from his pain and return to his usual self.
Initially, I believed that we were doing a huge chesed by taking Gavi into our home, but as time passed, I realized that we were the ones who were gaining.
Despite Gavi’s disabilities and his moodiness, beneath it all, you could see he was a tzaddik; he had an innate temimus. I’ve always known that individuals with special needs are holy neshamos, but now I was witnessing it firsthand. Gavi’s cheshek hamitzvah and love for Hashem was unbridled and pure. The powerful way he davened — with such simple and earnest sincerity — inspired me deeply. I felt like I was being warmed by the glow of his bright neshamah.
Watching him prepare for Shabbos or a Yom Tov was a lesson in itself. “I can’t believe the holy Shabbos is coming,” he would exclaim. “I don’t know how we can all walk around like it’s a normal day!” His exuberance was real, and his love for everything holy was palpable. Simply by being in Gavi’s presence, I felt like I was absorbing his intense emunah and love for Hashem’s mitzvos.
From the start, Yochanon was wary of this slightly socially off young man who had joined our home. But once he saw that Gavi was genuine, he warmed to him. It was hard to resist Gavi’s sincere friendliness. Always one to see the good in others, Gavi kept marveling over Yochanon’s talents and continuously showered him with compliments.
“You’re such a talented bochur!” Gavi would enthuse at the Shabbos table, where our kids and grandchildren were gathered for the seudah. And then he would go on and tell everyone how amazing and special Yochanon was. He shared with everyone that Yochanon would sometimes sit with him and explain a concept with patience. “You don’t know what a choshuv person is sitting in our midst,” he’d say.
Gavi’s love for life, for Hashem, and for Yidden — all of it was having a tremendous hashpa’ah on our grandson. Yochanon, who was usually reserved and skeptical of praise, thawed in Gavi’s presence. He would watch as Gavi fervently said Tehillim on long Shabbos afternoons, and I’d see the surprise on his face when Gavi cried real, big tears. One morning, it struck me that the frown that had been planted on Yochanon’s face was no longer there. He was more thoughtful, positive, and generally interested in the world around him.
Before his parents had divorced, Yochanon had been the cousin that all the little ones had clung to. His easygoing personality, sense of humor, and charm were infectious. But ever since he had shut down, he was no longer interested in family gatherings and would barely glance in the direction of his cousins, who were vying for his attention. Now, I began noticing that he would engage one of the youngsters with a witty remark or goofy expression. His old spark seemed to be slowly returning.
Without prompting, Yochanon started learning with a chavrusa a few times a week. He woke up earlier. His day started to have a reason and rhyme, and I could see the satisfaction in his beautiful, glowing eyes.
Not long after, we received approval for Gavi to join a wonderful group home suited for high-functioning individuals like him. The last day he spent in our home was emotional. He had become such a vital member of our family in those few short months, and it was hard to say goodbye. My strong, even-keeled grandson had tears in his eyes, and he hugged Gavi fiercely.
“Don’t be sad,” Gavi said to his younger friend with a wide grin. “We can still spend some time together. How about ice cream every so often?”
I couldn’t help but marvel that by providing Gavi with a warm home, I had, in turn, been given the gift of seeing my grandchild heal and bloom. He had been a wilting flower, withering away from the deep emotional pain he was experiencing, and surprisingly, a special-needs man was able to do what we had failed to accomplish — to open Yochanon’s eyes to the beauty of the world around him, and most of all, inside himself.
Names have been changed.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 880)
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