Disabled children have elevated souls, rabbi says

After a short pause, Rabinowitz revealed that his fourth child had been born with Down syndrome. Without a moment's hesitation, the rebbe responded: "It comes for you a double mazel tov," he said. "Mazel tov, mazel tov."

Rabinowitz — who spoke at the International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics in Burlingame last month — couldn't believe his ears. Did his rebbe hear him right? How could the birth of this disabled child, whose diagnosis had caused the rabbi and his wife such pain and grief, warrant a double dose of congratulations?

The rebbe proceeded to explain. The child had not been sent as punishment to his parents, he stressed, but as a tafkid, or mission for them.

"He told me this child has been designated specifically for this family," recalled Rabinowitz, "and that the child would actualize potential in us and in those around us beyond our expectations."

Judaism teaches that some children are sent by God, the rebbe said, to teach the world compassion, appreciation of individuality and gratitude for the simple things in life. For that reason, he said, Shlomo and other developmentally disabled children are gifted with "elevated souls."

The rebbe "promised me that not only will I love [Shlomo]. I'll be happy with him," Rabinowitz said. The rebbe also promised that Shlomo "will be a source of naches," or joy.

At the time, Rabinowitz was still reeling from the news of his son's retardation, so those were hard words for him to comprehend.

More than five years later, the Brooklyn-based Orthodox rabbi can't seem to tell enough stories about the happiness his spunky, loving son brings to those around him.

Every Shabbat, while Shlomo's siblings discuss that week's Torah portion, the youngster acts it out. On Sukkot, he can't get ahold of the lulav fast enough. And when Rabinowitz takes Shlomo to synagogue, the child gleefully shouts out "amen."

On Simchat Torah, the boy dances with such joyful fervor that when Rabinowitz doesn't bring him to services, congregants ask, "Where's Shlomo? He's so much fun."

"He remains developmentally behind," Rabinowitz said, "but he's funny, he's vibrant, he's happy, he's special. Oh is he special."

In the years since Shlomo's birth — years when the child endured open-heart surgery and a number of serious illnesses — Rabinowitz and his wife Miriam have traveled a path paved with emotions ranging from terror to elation. The rabbi shared that remarkable journey with an audience of several hundred during a talk titled "The Jewish Child with Developmental Disabilities: The Impact, the Challenge, the Response."

The lecture followed a related talk by Dr. N. Paul Rosman, a Boston pediatric neurologist who spoke of the pre- and postnatal challenges facing families of children with abnormal brains.

For both the families and the disabled children themselves, Rosman said, coming to terms with the reality of neurological malfunction is a lengthy, taxing and sometimes extremely gratifying process.

Rabinowitz spoke eloquently about that process. When Shlomo was first born, Rabinowitz found himself assaulted by an array of feelings. He asked, "Why me?" He denied the reality of what had happened. He felt grief, self-pity, fear and at times, despair.

His wife was equally pained and confused. "She said the words `mazel tov' were like daggers in her heart," the rabbi recalled.

But everything began to change, following Rabinowitz's conversation with his rebbe. As time passed and the Rabinowitzes learned more about their child and his disability, they found that they no longer wished he had been born without Down syndrome. They simply loved him for who he was.

"What began as tragedy has been transformed into a fuller appreciation of all aspects of human life," Rabinowitz said.

Eventually, the couple became activists, forming Torah Alliance of Families of Kids with Disabilities (TAFKID), a support network through which they often speak publicly about their experiences with disability.

Part of their crusade involves raising awareness of the issue within the Jewish community, which Rabinowitz says is "still asleep" when it comes to fully including developmentally disabled children and adults.

But ultimately Rabinowitz believes that Shlomo's story and others like it are relevant to anyone facing a challenge of faith.

"We do not pick and choose in God's world," he said. "We believe that all that God does is for good, for our benefit, our growth."