On My Friend and Student, Saadya, A”H
Soon after we announced the founding of the Makor College Experience, I received a call from the mother of a potential applicant. She informed me that her son had for years dreamed of attending Yeshiva University; he had many friends that went to YU, and his late father was a long time professor. Over the years, she knew that his Down syndrome made that dream unattainable, and simply smiled and changed the subject when he brought it up. At the same time, she knew that her son always seemed to find a way of getting what he wanted. When she saw the announcement that Makor was starting a program in partnership with and on the campus of YU, she relished the chance of seeing her son’s dreams at last come true. There was only one problem: He was already in his thirties. Was he too old? Did he miss his chance? I explained to her that, in truth, having a middle-aged man in a college setting could be problematic; if a student didn’t “fit the part,” it could impact the overall acceptance of the program on campus and minimize our students’ inclusion opportunities. But, that being said, we’re here to fulfil people’s dreams, and from an inclusion perspective his chronological age was truthfully less important than how old he looked. So, we asked him to come in for an interview.
I had actually met and known Saadya about twenty-five years earlier from the camp he attended as a child, but we had lost touch for a decade or two. When he entered the room for his interview, and despite the long gap in our relationship, he immediately recognized me and said, “Dr. Steve!” I, in turn, immediately recognized not only that Saadya would be a good fit for Makor, but a perfect fit. In fact, he was precisely the type of student for whom the program was founded.
The Makor College Experience was never just about giving people with Intellectual Disability the chance to experience college life; it was about the chance to experience Yeshiva University. YU is so much more than a college; it is, for many people, the next normative stage in their growth as Jews. Saadya didn’t just want to go to college; he wanted to walk the halls and sit in the classrooms his father walked and taught in. He wanted to study Torah in the beit midrash his friends learned in. He wanted to be welcomed and included and accepted not simply in “the world,” but in what he knew was “his world”; the world of his father and his forefathers. He wanted what was expected of his peers to be expected of him: To continue growing, to study Torah, to be part of our community.
The Makor College Experience gave Saadya the opportunity to live his dream, and he, in turn, was a huge part in the program’s initial success. A lot of things went right in the birth of the Makor program, and I have often described its birth to people as a miracle. Part of that miracle was having Saadya as a member of our inaugural class. Having a student like Saadya, with his warm smile and air of exuberance and positivity, made it easy for us to be accepted on campus. Sitting in the first seat in the Glueck beit midrash meant that his smile was often the first thing people saw if they entered the beis on the left side on the second floor. Watching Saadya daven was a lesson in kavana, and if you were having a tough day there was nobody better in the world at telling you everything was going to be okay.
Since his passing, a lot of people have been rightfully talking about the angelic side of Saadya, of how close to shamayim and “otherworldly” his neshama was, even in life. That is all true, and that “special” side of Saadya was a wonderful side of him that we should learn from and be inspired by. Equally wonderful, however, and important to remember, is that he was also a real person. He relished being the center of attention, loved a good danish or slice (or two) of pizza, could be a prankster at times and sometimes got himself into trouble when he overstepped a boundary or wanted something that perhaps he wasn’t meant to have access to. A few people on campus over the years called me with what we can now simply refer to as a “Saadya related matter,” and I sometimes came down hard on him for behaving in ways that I felt would hurt his inclusion and independence opportunities in the long term. When I did, Saadya would always begin with, “It’s okay. Don’t worry.” When I would insist, “No, Saadya, it isn’t okay. You really can’t do that if you want to be welcomed to places,” he would eventually get serious and say, “Okay.” Then, without fail, I would receive a text at some point within the next 24 hours that stated some variation of (and I am copying this directly from my phone as I type), “Thanks you so much for all years of me you are special staff my life forever come to you all life ever in the world.” How can a text like that not bring some light into your day?
Even when he struggled, Saadya always wanted to do the right thing and be helpful. In looking through my texts, in addition to the thank yous and never-missed birthday wishes, there are numerous calls to come down from the office for mincha (“mincha now please come down to davening to together ever”) and announcements of things he thought it was important for me to know, like photos of announcements of new beit midrash rules as they were posted. He was the best cleaner I have ever met, and while this trait sometimes got him into trouble if he straightened up the possessions of a peer who preferred his items to remain unstraightened, he was incredibly helpful in keeping the Makor classroom orderly. Once, after numerous staff scoured the campus searching for something another student had lost, Saadya proudly announced that he had discovered the missing item in the classroom itself in a place that only he would have thought to clean. A year or two into the program, an opening came up in one of Makor’s residences in Brooklyn that was perfect for Saadya. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Saadya moved out of the Makor House at YU and started commuting every day. He was so proud of this next transition into independence, but, I have to admit, the Makor House became noticeably less organized without him living there.
While Saadya was sick, there were times when we were not sure he was going to make it through. But he did, and he got stronger. Had his death occurred two weeks earlier than it did, it would have been sad; now, it is sad and shocking. Frankly, I’m still numb. In the morning of April 28th, I was talking to Makor staff in Brooklyn about Saadya’s impending discharge from the hospital set for the following day. Just hours later, I got the call that he had gone into cardiac arrest and wasn’t able to be resuscitated. When I sent out the devastating news to the Makor College parents, I immediately received an emergency message from the mother of one of Saadya’s classmates: “Are you sure? Where did you hear this from? I was just talking to his mother an hour ago!”
Apparently, that is often how this dreadful virus works: There are good days. There are bad days. Too often, there are worst days.
One of the things we teach the Makor students is that you cannot argue with an emotion; emotions just are, and nobody can tell you not to feel how you are feeling. We also teach them that in responding to your emotions, it is important to remember that no emotion lasts forever. So, while it is sometimes important to refrain from acting on one’s emotions (acting out of anger, for example), it is equally important to refrain from fighting one’s emotions (it is still okay to feel angry). Just let your emotions happen. Just experience how you feel. You won’t feel this way forever.
Now is the time to be sad over our collective loss of Saadya. Soon, it will be time to honor his legacy, and we at the Makor program will do that. And, eventually, our thoughts of Saadya will move beyond our mourning and return once again to moments of joy and positivity that he so beautifully and eagerly brought into our lives.
I noted before that a lot of things went right in the birth of the Makor program, and I have often described its birth to people as a miracle. I have come to learn in the last few days that this particular miracle did not just happen; it had a very strong advocate. I am convinced, now, that what I saw as unexplained miracles were, in fact, Saadya’s prayers to attend YU being answered. I am so grateful that they were, that he re-entered my life, that he helped build our program into what it is, and that he gave me the opportunity, in some small part, to help him realize his dream.
Dr. Stephen Glicksman is the Director of Clinical Innovation at Makor Disability Services and founder of the Makor College Experience.
Photo Caption: Saadya Ehrenpreis
Photo credit: Times of Israel