July 21, 2024
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July 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Do you feel awkward around people with special needs? I know I did. Awkward, uncomfortable, etc. I generally tried to avoid them if I could. I couldn’t understand how friends of mine were able to spend their summers at camps like HASC. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that they could do that, but it was definitely not for me. Feeding, dressing, washing and changing older kids’ diapers was not my idea of a good time.

When I was living in New Jersey before we made aliyah, there was a man named John who lived in our building. He was in his 50’s and was physically handicapped, but was fine mentally. Even more shocking to me was that he was married. I couldn’t understand what would make a “normal” woman want to spend her life married to someone who she would have to physically take care of her entire life. My wife was always so nice to him, always not just saying hello, but engaging him in conversation. It was very hard for John to speak and although I always smiled at him and said hello, I didn’t feel like I could speak to him for any longer than a minute or two.

I often thought about why I felt so uncomfortable around people with special needs. It wasn’t that I felt they were contagious, I think it was really a combination of two things: 1) I didn’t really understand what they were about. In a way I felt like they had cooties and if I would just avoid them then somehow they would just go away. I didn’t stop to think that they were people just like me, that they loved to laugh and loved to be hugged. That they didn’t like to be stared at or that they just wanted to be treated like everyone else. 2) I tend to have a big heart and am a very sensitive person. I didn’t think I could emotionally handle someone who has special needs. It was too much in my face that this person has a “sad life” and a life made up of constant challenges. I couldn’t think that these kids could actually be happy and have a fulfilling life. Boy was I wrong in so many ways.

In July of 2002 I moved to Israel with my wife and 2-year-old daughter. A couple of months later, on September 11, 2002, my first son Moishy was born in Jerusalem and my world would never be the same. We didn’t realize it when Moishy was born, but during routine testing when he was three months old at a baby clinic, they told us that his head was not growing, that he seemed to have some other issues, and that we should do further testing. This news sent us on a crazy whirlwind of doctors, hospitals, cat scans, x-rays, and more. The diagnosis was clear. Our beautiful little boy had cerebral palsy and microcephaly. I had my very own special needs child.

In a few weeks Moishy will be 12 years old. There have been many challenges, operations, and other situations that only another parent of a special needs child can relate to. When he was two and a half he contracted bacterial meningitis and was in a coma for a few days. The doctors said they have never heard of a child who already had brain damage get meningitis which also attacks the brain. Through an open miracle (whose story I can perhaps share another time), Moishy had a 100% full recovery from the meningitis, whereas the doctors felt that if he did come out he was likely to be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. But the feeling of almost losing him and those weeks in the hospital brought me closer to him than I ever thought possible. When he came home I hugged him hard and have never let go.

Taking Moishy out in public has ironically always been a challenge. He is always stared at by kids and adults and I see people who cross the street to avoid him, people just like I used to. It hurts because I know how much I love him and how much love he has to give. His teachers and volunteers throughout his life have always realized how special and yummy he is. He brings smiles to people’s faces and from being his father I finally learned what all my friends who worked at HASC had always known, when you work with a special needs child you get back more than you give.

I wanted to do something that would bring awareness that those with special needs are not so different than you and I. I wanted to create an iconic product that people world-wide could associate with special needs, something that when seen will remind people that it’s okay and encouraged to walk over to a special needs person and share your smile. I wanted to have our own “yellow bracelet” or “pink ribbon” and so I just launched a project called “Zip Up For Special Needs.” It’s a zipper pull in the shape of a heart and my dream is that this symbol of love and connection will bring about true change in how people feel about those with challenges. We have joined together, many non-profits including NDSS, Camp HASC, and Yachad, to help share in this mission and we are looking for many more partners. Our team created a beautiful video and campaign on KickStarter that is launching this project. I sincerely hope you will join us in our efforts. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kligman/zip-up-for-special-needs

Nachum Kligman is the founder of Mianzi Fashion, the first apparel line that creates fashionable products for those with special needs and disabilities. He is also a business consultant and a writer and lives with his family in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

By Nachum Kligman

(reprinted with permission from The Jewish Press)

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