When programs guaranteed that they would teach him independence, I usually responded, “Independence — we have that down pat. How are you on dependence training?”
wave one more time, my smile belying the knot in the pit of my stomach. Saadya walks down the street to the Avenue and heads to the Q train.
He does a quick turn to return the wave, his smile radiating excitement. Today, he’s fulfilling his dream. Saadya is going to yeshivah.
Saadya will take the train from the station two blocks from our house, to Manhattan. At the 42nd Street–Times Square station, he’ll get off and walk up the staircase. He’ll walk past the maze of corridors and the dozens of signs and arrows pointing in myriad directions.
There will be street performers and missionaries handing out material. At 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, several thousand people will be mindlessly rushing, tunnel vision, to find their particular train, bus, or exit. Saadya will have to maneuver through the crowds, follow the signs to the IRT subway line, and find the correct set of steps. He’ll descend the crowded staircase to the platform for the 1 train uptown to Washington Heights. When he reaches the correct platform, the sign will flash: 1 train to Woodlawn—3 minutes.
Will his fellow passengers notice the dark-haired young man, wearing black slacks, a button-down shirt, black yarmulke on a fresh haircut? Will anyone stop to register that the brown eyes on his handsome face have a distinct shape? If you say hello to Saadya, his friendly answer will have the cadence of a speech impediment. Common signs of Down syndrome.
He and I took this ride together last week. This morning Saadya announced that he was going alone. I knew that the purpose of our joint trips was to reach this goal. But still, his announcement sent my heart racing and a layer of sweat covered my palms. I gave a weak smile and a cheery, “Really, you sure you know the route?”
“Yup, I’m an adult and I can do it.”
He has always considered himself “one of the guys,” has always assured me he knows exactly what he is doing. When programs guaranteed that they would teach him independence, I usually responded, “Independence — we have that down pat. How are you on dependence training?”
The NYPD records show Saadya’s fearless sense of adventure, documenting just how many times they were called in to search for him. Ever since Saadi could walk, fences or double locks on doors did little to deter him. An old friend just mentioned that it was understood by anyone on the block that if you saw Saadi meandering on his own in Flatbush, be sure to check in with his parents. Chances were, we were not aware of his location.
His most infamous adventure involved him wandering around Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, where an observant and truly heroic (in my opinion) NYPD police officer stopped to inquire why a boy with special-needs was alone in the dark. Meanwhile, a massive search had been ordered by the NYPD. The positive result of that adventure was that it traumatized him into considering MTA trains and buses as off-limits for Saadya Ehrenpreis.
Fast forward a decade or so, and this very same Saadya has an MTA subway card in his pocket. His daily journey will traverse the entire length of the borough of Manhattan. Eight hours later, he’ll do the trip in reverse.
It will take Saadya between an hour to an hour and a half — that is, if the MTA does not have some unexplainable delay — to reach his destination. Every cell in my maternal DNA is questioning, what kind of mother sends her child, okay, special child, alone into the belly of New York City!? Do you want to lose your “mother license?” What could you be thinking? says that not-so-quiet voice in my head.
But some perspective: If Saadya’s trip takes over an hour, it’s taken several years for us to reach this point.
It started with a chance comment at a Shabbaton run by Yachad (the amazing branch of the OU organization devoted to the special-needs population of the Orthodox world). The Friday night session was for “Parents of Special-Needs Adult Children” and about midnight, I headed into the tea room. Tired from the hour, and a little overwhelmed by the information, I didn’t look where I was going. I literally bumped into another mother. We both smiled and apologized and started a conversation. “So, what’s your son doing next year?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s going to the new program at Yeshiva University,” she said.
I was taken aback. “I didn’t know there was one.”
Somehow, we got separated between the chocolate-covered almonds and the seven-layer cake. I craned my neck and scanned the crowded room, but couldn’t remember what she looked like. We hadn’t exchanged names and she was gone, lost among the many hundreds of attendees at the Shabbaton. By Monday morning, I was sure I had imagined the whole encounter. No one I asked knew anything about the program.
Saadya had spent a year in Israel, attending a program called Darkaynu, as part of the Gush Etzion yeshivah. Saadya and his fellow Darkaynu students were part of a group of special-needs young men from all over the world. They had their own rebbeim and classes, but his dorm and his daily life was inclusive. Many of the “chutznikim” (foreign students) were on leave from their learning program at Yeshiva University in New York. In fact, if you asked Saadya what he was doing after Darkaynu, he’d inform you that he was going back to Yeshiva University to finish up for his semichah.
When Darkaynu was over, Saadya attended a day program in Brooklyn. But he had never abandoned his dream of attending Yeshiva University. I got used to saying, “Yes, sure Saadi. Maybe one day…” In my mind, I grouped it under “If you don’t have a dream, how can you have a dream come true?”
And until that chance meeting on a Friday night in May, his dream remained dormant. When the head of Saadi’s day program mentioned that “Women’s League” — an umbrella organization that provides residences and programs for special-needs young people — was doing something at Yeshiva University, a light went off in my head.
It took me only as long as it takes to hit the keys on my phone to call the main switchboard at Women’s League and ask hesitantly if there was a new program at Yeshiva University.
“Sure, Makor College Experience. I’ll put you through to Dr. Glicksman,” came the reply.
What? It was for real?
Dr. Glicksman came on the line. “We’re starting a program for high-functioning special-needs young men on the campus of Yeshiva University. We hope to have our own space in a dormitory or adjacent to the campus. We’ll have our own rebbi and teachers, and the boys will be part of the campus, learning in the beis medrash, davening with the yeshivah, eating in the cafeteria, and being part of the campus activities.” Had Saadi’s dream come to reality?
Amazingly, Dr. Stephen Glicksman remembered Saadya from years at Camp HASC, and he suggested we make an appointment for an interview.
It was a sunny spring morning when Saadi and I parked in front of the neat brick building in Boro Park that houses the offices of Makor Disability Services (formerly Women’s League Community Residences). Saadi was beside himself with excitement. He assured Dr. Glicksman that he was ready to live in a dormitory at YU, learn in the beis medrash, attend classes, work on the campus, and listen to the rules.
Dr. Glicksman showed us the pile of applicants for a very limited number of openings. Although my own heart sank, Saadi remained buoyantly optimistic.
Two weeks later, Dr. Glicksman left us a message on the answering machine. The message had been cut off, but I heard the words, “looking forward to working with you.”
Huh, on what?
I heard the mailbox cover snap. There it was, an envelope addressed to Mr. Saadya Ehrenpreis. “Dear Saadya, We are pleased to welcome you to the Makor College Experience.”
I clutched the envelope and listened for the orchestra that should be playing a triumphant march. I quickly resealed it and waited for Saadya to return home. His elation had no sense of surprise. I called the local shul, and asked them to add Saadya’s acceptance to the announcements made at the upcoming kiddush. As for Saadi, his euphoria was contagious.
That was June. In August, when Saadi returned from camp, we began preparations. A wardrobe of black slacks, button-down shirts, linens, towels.
And then came the update that the dormitory wouldn’t be opening until after the Yamim Tovim. I’d be terribly remiss in my honest confessions of the moments when I questioned if I had the stamina, emotional and otherwise, to really go through with sending him out into the big wide world. Perhaps the challenges I was meeting in just trying to get him there was a Heavenly sign that the tried-and-true system of his present program, with the nice little van that picked him up at my doorstep at about 8:30 a.m. and returned him to that same doorstep, eight hours later, was the right place for him to stay.
But as the preparations continued, my moments of questioning receded: that was, until the early-dawn hours, when the voices in my head took over, and sleep was chased away by worry.
But his excitement, and the joy it elicited in everyone around, had me back to persevering the challenge of Saadya E. moves on — one of his favorite phrases for forging ahead with life, whatever the obstacles.
I spent hours on the phone, attempting to explore the options of transporting a special-needs young man from one end of metropolitan New York City to the other end. Possible leads included a high school van and faculty members who traveled that route. They all lead to a series of dead ends. The only option was for me to travel the train with Saadya.
I quailed at the prospect. But still, I was the picture of upbeat enthusiasm as I watched him slide his subway Metrocard through the turnstile at 7:30 a.m. that first morning of school. I tried to stay low profile, keeping a few feet behind him as Saadya navigated the crowds and maze of Times Square, New York, at eight in the morning. A dark elevator leading to the street when we exited in Upper Manhattan led to my suggestion to take the stairs when he was alone… to get exercise.
We passed the bodegas, Spanish stores of upper Manhattan, and happily waved at the young men with yarmulkes who passed us by, heading to the same destination as we were. Over the next few days, Saadya’s anxiety disappeared.
Mine did not.
The first day Saadya traveled alone, I was sure it was an open miracle. The second day was not so successful. An hour after he left, I received the dreaded call.
“Mom, I’m lost,”
“Oh, really?” I tried to sound unconcerned.
“I’m on Broadway, but I can’t find school.”
“Okay,” I replied, “that sounds like something we can easily resolve. I’m going to call cousin Esther who lives in Washington Heights, she can tell you how to walk.”
A quick call to my niece. She did some sleuthing and called me back. “Saadi’s on Broadway, but not in Washington Heights. He’s at the other end, in Lower Manhattan on Wall Street.”
“Oh dear, can you walk him back to the subway?”
She hesitated. “He said his phone is running out of battery, so Avram [her husband] is in the car on his way to downtown Manhattan. We know exactly where Saadi is, so he’s not nervous.” Nice, that makes one of us.
“But,” she added, “I’ll send you a link for an app you can put on your phone that can connect to his phone. You’ll see where he is all the time.”
Saadi’s next subway trip included a portable battery power pack and an icon on his phone that said “Mom.” Smiling at me from my own phone was a cute little cartoon guy called Saadi. I waved goodbye to the real Saadi and watched my little icon Saadi on my phone, gliding toward the subway station. I sighed with relief as icon Saadi moved along on the train to Manhattan.
About half hour later, I watched him “walk” in Times Square-42nd Street. I made myself a cup of coffee when amazingly I saw cartoon Saadi on the 1 train! But wait! The numbers on the stations were going down, instead of up!
What’s worse? I asked myself, as I abandoned my coffee. Not knowing where Saadi is? Or knowing that he’s headed in the wrong direction at about 30 miles an hour?
I quickly dialed his cell number.
“Hi, Mom, I’m on the subway,” Saadi said cheerfully.
“Saadi, you’re going in the wrong direction!”
“No, I’m not.”
The phone went dead. Saadi and his independence.… I made myself a fresh coffee and told myself not to panic. Twenty minutes and three cups of coffee later, my phone rang. “Mom, I’m lost.”
“I know. Ask someone for the Uptown 1 train.”
My eyes stayed glued to the phone. About ten minutes later I watched my cartoon Saadi moving uptown from Wall Street to 23rd St to 34th past 42nd Street.
There would be other exciting days, when I thought Saadi had already arrived safely, only to get the “I’m lost” phone call. One day, it was in Brooklyn and my other apps helped me find a bus route to our house. There was the morning he was lost in Washington Heights, and my niece once again went to the rescue, finding him on local streets, and sending him in the right direction.
Saadya’s new career has not been without further exciting chapters. On the first short Friday of the year, Saadi assured me he’d leave the campus right after shiur. When I checked my phone, I saw my little cartoon Saadi on the train to Brooklyn. Over an hour later, he was still not home. I went into worry mode.
I called his cell phone again and again, but Saadi didn’t answer. It was just 20 minutes to lichtbentshen when Saadi finally picked up my call. “Where are you?”
“Don’t worry, I’m on Bedford Avenue, near Brooklyn College, I’ll walk home. I know you are busy getting ready for Shabbos and I didn’t want to bother you.”
“No, I’ll pick you up.” I grabbed car keys and glanced at my Saadi icon. Bedford Avenue stretches across Brooklyn. The streets adjacent to little cartoon Saadi were on the other end, at least 40 minutes away. Panic! I glanced at the clock and the rapidly setting sun. “Saadya, give me the address on Bedford Avenue where you are standing and DO NOT MOVE!”
I push the Uber icon, type in the address he gives me, and the destination: Home!
Forty minutes later, a blue compact car pulls up in front of the house, with Mohammed or Salvador driving, Saadi — not the icon, but the smiley, real-life Saadi — sails into the house as the sun sets and the menuchah of Shabbos descends. I regain my composure and thank the One Above for His continued protection of my very special, special-needs child.
“So how is Saadi enjoying his new program — and how does he get back and forth?” I’m often asked.
“Oh, it’s a dream come true. He’s in the main beis hamedrash, with his own rebbi, he’s eating in the cafeteria and goes to the campus activities. He really feels like a genuine YU guy and he’s certainly growing in so many ways. And he takes the subway,” I casually add.
“Whoa, that’s a long ride. And complicated. Are you nervous?”
“Who me? Oh no, Super Mom, nerves of steel!” I say, laughing.
But in truth, the answer lies where it always has been, ever since Saadya entered our lives. Bitachon. Prerequisite for all of life, every aspect of every day, every challenge — and especially necessary for a mother in the process of letting go.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 583)
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