T here are transformational people in everyone’s life. Whether it’s a sibling parent friend or professional colleague we each have a person we admire and look up to as a role model. Still no one will ever qualify for that position quite like a personal rebbi. Chazal hold such a rebbi in the highest esteem because while parents deliver us into This World the rebbi will bring us into the World to Come.
Our first child Yedidya was born 12 years ago with Down syndrome. Soon after his birth in Israel we moved to New York. So much of the focus for a child with special needs is on services and therapies — basic functional needs. Understandably but embarrassingly a Torah education will often play second fiddle. While we certainly wouldn’t have considered sending any of my “typical” children to public school this is exactly where Yedidya landed for grades one through six.
My wife to her credit always wanted Yedidya in yeshivah insisting that her son have a Torah education. But when that didn’t pan out due to financial considerations we decided to supplement Yedidya’s public education with a private rebbi. As we inquired through our various special-needs networks one name consistently came our way: Rabbi Yehoshua Fulda of Washington Heights.
When we spoke to Rabbi Fulda he told us that although he has worked for years with children with learning disabilities he had never worked with a child who had a developmental disability like Yedidya’s. His disclaimer was clear: He had no experience in this realm and couldn’t guarantee any measure of success. He wasn’t even sure of what methodologies to use and he told us that he’d do some research and then get back to us.
When he called us back he suggested that we begin on an experimental basis and see if there were any results before we made a serious financial or time commitment. Rabbi Fulda began to learn with Yedidya in the beis medrash of my shul starting with some parshah and a little alef-beis. At the beginning Yedidya couldn’t really sit still for an entire 45-minute session.
I have to admit: I marveled at Rabbi Fulda. He would come each week with a whimsical necktie to engage Yedidya. He used all types of creative experiential methods of teaching and he would be flexible using whatever seemed to work. He was not dogmatic but he did demand that Yedidya do his very best.
I was also deeply impressed that a person could sit and learn patiently and persistently with a seven-year-old who has a developmental disability. He also seemed to take great pride in his work. In a world where many pursue great honor and want to teach on the highest levels this man was content with teaching the basics to a little boy with Down syndrome. In fact he would often gently hint to me that I needed to be a bit more committed in reviewing the material with Yedidya as repetition was critical to his mastering the material.
The results were palpable. The Jewish community believes in inclusion and leveling the playing field. When each of our kids came home with their parshah materials from yeshivah Yedidya would also have what to share with us at the table. Rabbi Fulda would provide Yedidya with brief multiple-choice questions on the parshah and more often than not he knew the answers to those questions. More significantly he beamed with pride that he also had a rebbi and was no different from his younger siblings. He pined like each of them to have a turn to be the center of attention at the Shabbos table — and he got his chance.
About a year into the learning Rabbi Fulda called to share the great news that Yedidya was ready to extend the learning sessions to an hour. Over time they began to master the alef-beis work on word conjugations and other more advanced aspects of learning. But the very best part of the arrangement was the evolution of a beautiful rebbi-talmid relationship. Yedidya began to really look forward to learning with his rebbi and would brag that he learned regularly with “Rebbi Yehoshua.” He came to greatly respect his rebbi and treat their designated time together as kodesh kodoshim.
Eventually they began to learn two times a week. Rabbi Fulda became part of our family. He’d always share encouraging words with us detailing how much he was gaining from this special Torah partnership. He even invited us to spend a Shabbos with his family.
We also felt the love and wanted to reciprocate.
When we were blessed with a son a little over a year ago we had to designate a sandek. There is a minhag not to honor the same person twice and since this was our fourth son we were a little short on options. My wife and I felt that Rabbi Fulda would certainly qualify as the special type of person we would want to hold Yedidya’s baby brother as a symbolic mizbeiach of sorts during the bris.
We were disappointed — but not surprised — by his response. Rabbi Fulda learns with many boys each week especially on Sunday morning when some of them are off from school. He politely turned down the offer for sandakus because it would be unfair to be mevatel Torah and deprive another child his steady study time.
Fast-forward to last week.
Yedidya has now completed five years of regular study with Rabbi Fulda and will finally attend yeshivah this fall at Bonim Lamakom a special school for Down syndrome children housed in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn.
When Rabbi Fulda came for a final session in our home my wife and I were both busy and missed the final goodbye. This wasn’t intentional but perhaps subconsciously it wasn’t an accident either.
Rabbi Fulda left us a long letter expressing how transformative the last five years had been. He wrote to me that had I been home Yedidya wouldn’t have been the only one to receive a long and intense embrace.
I reflect on this with incredibly mixed emotions — excited over where Yedidya is and how much he has accomplished and grown both in learning and middos while sad to let go of a marvelous caring rebbi and role model to both Yedidya and my family.
Every human being wants to feel special to be recognized for his or her unique talents and contributions. The power of being seen by another with a pure good eye and feeling that person’s love in the strongest way is indescribable. We should all merit at least one such relationship in our lifetimes.
Rabbi Fulda demanded the very best of Yedidya — and by extension our family — in the sweetest ways despite impediments and limitations. He was the transformative rebbi that we each crave in the deepest and truest sense. Our special-needs journey has connected us with many incredible people but this relationship stands out. We are eternally grateful for the privilege of experiencing a boy with Down syndrome gain the skills for a life-long relationship with Torah while forming a bond with his own special rebbi.
Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 668. Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the director of community engagement strategy and development at Yachad the National Jewish Council for Disabilities and the incoming rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere New York. He is the author of We’re Almost There: Living With Patience Perseverance and Purpose (Mosaica Press 2016).
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