Special Girl, Special Mother

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

As an adolescent, Jodi Samuels didn’t whine when her parents explained that the trip to Israel was out of the question, beyond the family’s budget. Determined to tour the Holy Land with a youth group, Jodi, then 14, found herself a job at a supermarket in her native Johannesburg and worked there every day for at least two hours after school, all morning on weekends, earning the money for her trip.

Now, more than two decades later, Jodi — a mother of three and an entrepreneur overseeing three ventures she helped found — finds herself at odds with the establishment. And once again, she declines to accept “no” as the only answer.

The other morning, she pulled her two older children onto her bed and delivered the news: For the second year in a row, the family would be requesting that the children’s yeshiva, Manhattan Day School, consider admitting their youngest, Caila — a smiley 2 ½- year-old who recites the Shema before bedtime; who diapers her dolls; who was diagnosed shortly after birth with Down Syndrome.

It’s been a year since the first time the Samuels submitted an application for Caila, known as Caily, to MDS, where her two siblings, Temira, 6, and Meron, 8, have been attending since preschool. It’s been seven months since The Jewish Week wrote up the tale of how the school rejected the application without even meeting Caila, declining to consider the Samuels’ request to place Caila in the classroom on a three-month trial basis, during which period she would be accompanied by a special-needs instructor paid for by New York City, with the Samuels covering any additional costs.

Of course, it’s not certain that Caila would thrive at MDS (although many Down Syndrome children do flourish in mainstream settings around the world). Of course, there are other schools, even Jewish ones, which would welcome Caila (albeit none with a Modern Orthodox orientation and none located in Manhattan). Of course, MDS, which has offered a special education program for 30 years to children with language-based impairments, addresses the needs of a diverse array of students.

When asked about Caila, Rabbi Mordechai Besser, the MDS principal, sent excerpts from his June e-mails to The Jewish Week, which explain that after the admissions committee reviews an application, if it “concludes that it is not the right setting, then we do not bring the child in for an interview.”

Still, one can’t help but wonder why the school can’t spare a few minutes to meet with Caila. Still, one can’t help but be horrified by Jodi’s reports of the insults and threats proffered by community leaders. After all, this is a story of a mother’s wish that someday her little girl can participate in a Passover seder like her older siblings, and perhaps even stand on a chair and offer a few words of Torah at the family’s weekly Shabbat table like her big brother.

“This is about all of our children,” says Jodi on a recent weekday morning, when we meet at Whole Foods Market on West 99th Street. She counts five Modern Orthodox families with special-needs children under the age of 5 who live on her block alone.

Jodi doesn’t drink coffee at our meeting; she’s already wired. She only slept three hours the night before — not because of a child’s nightmare or her own, but because she’s juggling so many balls and determined to keep them all aloft.

A passionate traveler, Jodi continues to run her nonprofit outreach program, Jewish International Connection. She recently launched J-Deal, a sort of Jewish version of Groupon, offering a daily bargain to its community of “shoppers.” And in 2008, after Caila was born, Jodi founded metroimma, an online community for Jewish mothers.

As Jodi recalls it, she didn’t sink into depression upon hearing of Caila’s diagnosis. She sat bolt upright in bed, digested the news, and then understood: This baby would be their blessing; their gift; their princess.

In a recent metroimma blog, Jodi pondered the meaning of “special.” She recounted how Caila spotted Angie, a little girl who is physically challenged, all alone in the playground. “Caily sat down next to her and said, ‘Hi’ in a gentle voice. She then took Angie’s hand and held it for a few moments before gently stroking her cheek, giving her a kiss and a big hug, and began coaxing her to come join in with the other kids.”

Wherever she ends up as a student, Caila has something to teach us all.

Elicia Brown’s “All She Wrote” column appears monthly. E-mail her at eliciabrown@hotmail.com.

See story on special-needs conference run by Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center on page 10.

Comments

My son is a classmate of caily's and she is one of his favorite friends to play with - she is a special little girl who adds tremendously to the growth of all the children she encounters. Its a shame when the community shows its short-sightededness, such unwillingness to open the door to a new world of possibility is what hinders the Jewish people to be as good as they can be.
We are blessed to have a beautiful little girl born into this world as a child of Jodi whom i believe will make change and a difference for others. We need to go beyond appearances and the square box that we sometimes live in and open our hearts to the beautiful joy and light that shines on us. I pray the light gets turned on and Caily can join with Meron and Temira at school.
mds has been educating children for more than half a century. that is their mission, "chanoch lenaar al pi darco." if they could educate caily they would happily do so. obviously they can not. lets not teach our children that we should do anything to get what we want just because we want it.

Jodi Samuels is far from a "Special Mother." She is nothing more than a bully who has received far too much press already. She published the following on her blog last week:
"I really hate chesed projects. It's a strong statement and I need to explain that I mean this in the context of special needs kids.

Most yeshivas have a requirement for all eighth graders to complete a chesed project. These kids take on projects including the elderly, the homeless, the hungry and special needs kids. While it seems all good superficially, I question what the value is. I can't help but wonder about the message that is being sent to our society, especially with regards to special needs people.

So in our case, two girls came to "play" with Caily once a week. They felt good and tick! Mitzvah done. Later in life, they will follow in their community foot steps and write a check for a special needs organization. Tick again! Mitzvah completed. But they never learn to open their hearts, home and schools. In fact, the chesed project for a special needs Jewish child and a beggar are the same. Offer a dollar or an hour and done - mission accomplished.

What we fail to teach our children and what the community fails to see is that we want inclusion and acceptance, not chesed."

In this blog entry, our illustrious Ms. Samuels has taken pot shots at two eighth grade girls who clearly tried to do a chesed project from which Ms. Samuels clearly benefitted. She should be ashamed of herself for this kid of behavior. Ms. Samuels not only needs a lesson in chesed but in basic human decency. Furthermore, this newspaper should be ashamed of its editorial staff for giving Ms. Samuels a second platform in three months. If Ms. Samuels wants to take people on, I suggest she stick with adults such as Rabbi Besser. Ms. Samuels should also consider how these girls might feel if they read her blog. Well I can tell you because they did. They were in tears along with their parents. Shame on you Jodi and shame on "The Jewish Week!"

Ah, at last "The Jewish Week" begins to publish the truth about Ms. Samuels in the last comment. She is not simply misguided. She is cruel. Attacking innocent children within the context of her crusade is simply disgusting behavior. However, "The Jewish Week's" unwillingness to publish the truth about Ms. Samuels is even more disheartening. Ms. Samuels is in the process of initiating a lawsuit against MDS, the school that educates her two older children. Her lawyer, Mr. Robert Bernstein, has informed several people that he is representing her. So, in her crusade, Ms. Samuels will be forcing MDS to spend money on defending itself against her lawsuit which will take money away from other things such as the library and more Smartboards. Her lawsuit is a chilul Hashem. I should also mention that she is quite comfortable suing MDS even though the school administration generously allows her to market her newest business venture (JDEAL) at school events. So, to put this in perspective, MDS educates two of her children, helps her with her parnasah (business) and she sues them. What kind of wharped sense of values does this woman have? In addition, "The Jewish Week" should do a much better job of fact checking before publishing such one-sided articles.

Well, at last Jodi is voting with her feet. On June 28th, she announced on her blog that she was pulling her two kids currently in attendance at MDS out of the school. Normally, I would have wished her well and hoped that she found a community and education environment that suited her better than MDS. Unfortunately, I cannot do this. Jodi decided to go out with fireworks and wrote a scathing and untrue version of events on her blog that slanders senior administrators at MDS as follows:
"We were warned by a board member that they would cut our funding to my nonprofit. Rabbis that tried to get involved were warned that they would take away funding from their synagogues or that they would lose subsidies for their kids at the school. For us, the most damning comments came from the senior leadership at the school...Imagine being told "Why don't you just leave her at Chabad?" to which my husband answered "Chabad is not a solution, at age 5 she will have nowhere to go." The reply you have "3 years. Mashiach will come before then." My husband challenged this person and said how can someone of your leadership speak to us like this and said what would you do in our situation and this person answered "Send her to a non Jewish school and for Chanukah send her to the school, we will let her light one Chanukah candle maybe two and for Purim we will give her half a humantash". The person then walked away. Wow! The leadership speaking about your child as though they are a dog!!!!"
There is absolutely no possible way that Rabbi Besser or Mrs. Melzer ever suggested that Callie attend a public school and show up at MDS on two days a year. These individuals are both consummate professionals and simply would not say such inflammatory things. This is evident in the responses that Rabbi Besser has given to The Jewish Week on this issue. Jodi, can you possibly stop the slander and libel against MDS and its administration. Truthfully, they have been very kind to you. Perhaps, you should knock on the door of Ramaz. Oh, but I forgot, they are located on the East Side and therefore too inconvenient for you.

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