By Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen
Suburban life is great. After more than a decade of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, our new life has been filled with many new things. Chief among them has been a basement, a garage, an upstairs, a barbecue grill, and quieter surroundings. For most, these items aren’t a novelty, but living with five children in a relatively small apartment can get one excited about suburban living.
Another new addition has been going from zero cars to two cars in just a few seconds flat. To effectively execute carpool responsibilities and to transport our own family, one of those cars is the minivan. Carpool is an entirely new dynamic for me. We technically are involved with four different carpools, but two of them occur weekly as our older boys have yeshiva on Sunday and there is no busing. This minivan has been active in transporting chevrahs of young men to yeshiva.
Despite being brand-new to the neighborhood, we were fortunate to get our kids into established carpools. If not, we would be tasked with driving every week rather than just periodically. However, we really didn’t know any of the kids or parents in these groups and it has been interesting to observe the dynamics of the kids and glean insight from them into life—and even the homes from which they come.
I jumped right in and drove carpool my first weekend in the neighborhood. The first carpool group is for my typical 8-year-old son. It is a group of elementary-school-age yeshiva kids ranging from first grade to seventh grade. They comment on the music playing, they banter with each other, they talk about the hot dogs the school serves on Wednesdays, and talk a bit about sports. They also try and convince me that it is part of my job to stop off on the way home to buy them Slurpees and other treats. One of the kids even offers to treat everyone in the car if I agree to make the pit stop.
My other steady carpool has a bit of a different dynamic. It is a longer drive (to Flatbush instead of Far Rockaway) and in contrast to the other carpool, the mothers tend to come out to the car and ensure their kids are seat-belted in. This group is very unique—it comprises five young men with Down syndrome. The ages in the group vary from 9 years all the way up to 18 years old. Some of the boys are very big and some very small.
My son has Down syndrome, and it is interesting to have his personality multiplied by four during this car ride. This chevra also has its own beat or “shprach” just as the other group does. They greet each other with a warmth and kindness that is palpable. They also love music. Some even bring along their own devices to entertain them for the long trip back and forth. The oldest of the group has memorized the driving rotation and always proclaims loudly who has pickup and who will be driving next week.
Truth be told, I don’t exactly covet driving carpool. It is time-consuming and can even try my patience at times. However, it is a nice opportunity to spend time with my own children and watch them interact with others. These dual routes also reinforce for me the similarities between “typical” kids and those with disabilities. It is reassuring to witness children who are noticeably different engaging in the same routine as typical kids.
Recently, Jewish music superstar Mordechai Shapiro made a music video on behalf of Yachad, a wonderful organization that stresses inclusion of disabled individuals within the fabric of Jewish life. The premise of the song and video is to contrast disabled children with typical ones, showing how they each have likes and dislikes and that, ultimately, they have so much more in common than what sets them apart. Watching the video and hearing the hit song reinforces the message that the differences can be subtle and the commonalities can be robust.
It raises an interesting conundrum. Do we, as parents of these children, want the world to treat our kids with disabilities as privileged or just like everyone else? Should there be an affirmative-action mindset of sorts in our communities or should they be left to struggle and suffer the pains and educational process of integration?
For many years, my son with a disability attended the Avos u’Banim program on the Upper West Side in the Kollel. They would raffle off prizes at the end of the learning session. My son would have a tantrum if he didn’t win the raffle, and lovely children always used to give him their prizes. This was impressive middos displayed by these children but it was not really serving my son’s long-term developmental needs to function effectively in society. Ultimately, we begged off the gifts, and my son began to learn that it is all right to not always win. Now he is disappointed but he can deal with it as he often loses the raffles.
My son recently joined a wonderful basketball league in our new community. My son is athletic and can certainly play ball. However, he doesn’t yet understand the nuances of playing in five-on-five full-court basketball games with typical kids. One week, his teammates fed him the ball. He violated various dribbling rules and the referees let it go. The defense played lax and he even scored a basket. This was very exciting for him but kind of an artificial success.
The next week, nobody passed him the ball. He ran up and down, frustrated, as he wanted a chance to shoot and score. However, I don’t think that would have happened anyway even had they passed to him with the defense playing him tightly like any other player. Which experience is better for him in the short term? Long term?
I end with this story. A few weeks ago I was driving the carpool back from Flatbush. The weather was wretched and the trip was filled with traffic and obstacles. Toward the end of the long drive, my wife texted me, inquiring as to our estimated arrival time. I glanced down at my phone for a moment at a red light.
As I began to drive again, I was followed by a police car. The boys with Down syndrome were concerned and told me the police were on my tail. I pulled over but, frankly, I had no idea what the issue was. The officer gave me a “mi’shebeirach” for texting while driving. He then peeked into the back seat of the minivan and his entire demeanor changed. I went from a sure ticket to some words of encouragement about transporting my precious cargo.
I was quite relieved, as were the boys. Would I have gotten away with it if I were transporting my Far Rockaway carpool? My guess is probably not.
It is great that we live in a society where individuals with disabilities are included and integrated in almost all facets of Jewish life. It is a dream that many never thought possible just a few years ago. However, inclusion brings its own set of challenges. Striking the right chord between real meaningful inclusion and aesthetic inclusion is very much a trial-and-error experience.
We desire the sensitivity and flexibility, but it shouldn’t be taken to an extreme either.
This process of improvement begins by having greater awareness of those around us and an understanding of how similar to us disabled individuals can be. Many of them absolutely can be and should be included in various frameworks. At the same time, there is still meaningful difference that must be accounted for in the inclusion process, requiring balanced but not overinflated tactics.
Every human should benefit from the challenge of raising his or her personal bar and rising to higher levels. However, the bar should never be too hard or too high, but also not too easy either. I hope our community continues to contemplate this dichotomy. Inclusion—but in a dignified way that treats each person with a disability with great respect and demands the most from them. I hope these questions will spark a greater desire to discover appropriate solutions and answers.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the new Ashkenazi rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, NY. He is also the national director of Community Engagement and a development executive at Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. He is the author of “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016).