May 16, 2024
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May 16, 2024
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Makor Men Make Magical Memphis Memories

(Courtesy of Makor) What does it feel like to hold a sefer Torah for the first time?

You might notice the tactile sensation: smooth velvet starkly contrasting with the weave of thick gold braid. Perhaps the earthy smell of parchment, or the light dancing across the keter as you turn around and around. Maybe you experience that transcendent awareness that the scroll you are holding connects you with something cosmic and divine.

Maybe you notice none of these things, or you have never even held a sefer Torah before.

For individuals with developmental disabilities, dancing with the Torah is a rare occurrence that many may never get to experience. But in a small shul, nestled in the heart of blues country and rock ’n’ roll, five residents aged 15-52 from Makor’s residential homes did just that. It was an unforgettable experience that they will cherish for a lifetime.

The innovative and exciting road trip from Brooklyn to Memphis was the brainchild of Mark Gersten, a native of Memphis and the very able manager at the East 5th Makor Home.

“Traveling and seeing new, interesting places is such a ‘normal’ part of life that we all take for granted,” said Mark. “But if you can’t travel on your own, it’s hard to have those experiences. At Makor, we want our guys to have the same experiences as any neurotypical person would.”

The idea occurred to Mark when he realized that bringing his beloved residents along with him to his hometown local shul for Yom Tov would be mutually beneficial: The additional guests would enhance the small community’s simchas Yom Tov, while exposing the Makor men to a very different venue and culture than their Brooklyn hometown. Mark and two additional staff members—Sruli Teitelbaum and Pinchas Schwarzbaum—made the 16-hour road trip from Brooklyn to Memphis, driving through the night. They arranged for a spacious Airbnb located close enough to his parents’ shul in Memphis, while also providing the space to enjoy the full travel experience like any other tourist.

“I am so grateful to Makor for backing my idea in the first place and allowing for this kind of creativity,” said Mark. “When you’re encouraged as a staff member to share ideas and solutions, you become more of a co-creator of the bigger mission, rather than just going to work and following orders. It’s empowering.”

Although Simchat Torah was unarguably the climactic highlight of the trip, the group enjoyed several days of touring and enjoying the many interesting and exciting sights that the city has to offer.

On Friday, the residents visited the Memphis Zoo, where they enjoyed exploring the wide variety of wildlife, birds and reptiles. A most memorable experience was the camel rides.

“At first, they were a bit nervous,” Mark recalled. “Camels are a lot bigger than you think, and the whole experience—not just the zoo—was so new for our guys. Once they got up there, though, they were thrilled. I wish I could describe the delight that lit up their faces.”

That Sunday, the adventure continued at the Mississippi Mid-South Fair. Seven hours of games, roller coaster rides and goldfish—the complete carnival experience. For most group home residents, going to any amusement park is at most a once-a-year occurrence. Especially during the pandemic, when most outings have been affected by changing regulations, engaging in this type of carefree and fun excursion was a welcome break for residents and staff alike.

The trip culminated in the two-day celebration of Simchat Torah, where the residents brought along their buoyant spirit and smiles to this small community. Here, each of the residents was integral to making the minyan in Memphis, and they felt that importance: They knew they were needed and valued by the families they celebrated with.

Over the holiday, they danced with the Torah, were called up for aliyahs, and ate delicious meals in the Gersten home. Of course, attending shul and being part of a community is nothing new for Makor residents, as they regularly attend various shuls throughout Brooklyn. Nonetheless, the novelty of being somewhere new and an essential contributor to the services made the Memphis shul experience even more precious.

Sruli, the trip co-leader, shared: “This was the most exciting part of the trip for our guys. They loved knowing they were bringing joy to other people and being such a big part of the celebration. They are still talking about it over a month later!”

Mark was pursuing a degree in social work at Lander College when he began working for Makor just to support himself through school. His innate sensitivity and knack for connecting with others made him ideally suited for his position. After finishing his graduate degree, he took a four-year hiatus to work as a social worker at a different organization but found the work less fulfilling than anything he had experienced at Makor.

“I wanted to go back and know I was actually making a difference in people’s lives,” he said. Upon returning, Mark moved into a managerial position at the East 5th home in Brooklyn, while also working at the East 23rd home. The memorable road trip included residents from both homes, which resulted in forging new relationships along the way.

It is truly amazing to see how one man’s visionary initiative, backed by a supportive and committed organization, can have such an enormous impact on the lives of those who need it most.

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