Special Girl, Special Mother
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
See story on special-needs conference run by Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center on page 10.