For as long as I can remember, I knew my brother wasn’t like other kids his age. There was something very special but different about him. Avi is only 20 months younger than me, but as I grew and matured, he lagged behind. Even so, we were always very close: goofy, sweet Avi and his protective older sister.
It was always hard to understand what Avi was trying to say, and he was diagnosed as learning disabled with a speech impediment very early on. I was pretty good at school, but Avi struggled to sit still, and to do even basic work. 35 years ago, the concept of “special needs” wasn’t on people’s radar, unless they were specialists. Few programs existed, and kids who learned or acted differently were often ignored or even hidden. I didn’t realize until many years later how blessed we were that a new program had been established a few years earlier for children like Avi who couldn’t learn in a regular school setting. The little program he joined had been created by forward thinking individuals who believed that children with special needs deserved not only an education that could meet their needs, but a Jewish education as well. These were the early days of what today is known as SINAI Schools.
One of the most important things about school for Avi was that at SINAI he was part of the greater school community. Because SINAI was incorporated into the mainstream Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (then known as HYA), he spent his days surrounded by “normal” children, playing with them at recess, eating lunch together, and feeling like a normal kid.
But…he really wasn’t like other kids. He looked like everyone else, and he learned to play the part well, but as soon as he started to speak, people would realize that he had a disability. And yet, for those children at JKHA somehow it didn’t make a difference.
Looking back on it, I realize how unusual that was for the time.
My friends would come over, and they included him in whatever we were doing. As we both entered our high school years Avi moved to SINAI at TABC. Once again, the environment was one of belonging, and the TABC boys always included him in their sports activities. Somehow, he always seemed to be at the center of things, and everywhere we went together, everyone knew him.
I know I’m painting a rosy picture, but the truth is it wasn’t easy growing up in a house with a sibling with special needs. My brother and I had a special bond, and I was given the patience to try to understand what he was trying to say. But that meant that I was often his translator, and I frequently felt that I had to defend or explain him to outsiders.
Growing up, a lot of my parents’ focus was on Avi, which I understand now, but it was often hard for me when I was younger. I was envious of the attention my brother received from our parents, and sometimes frustrated by the responsibilities being his sister carried.
And then, as the years went on, I realized that I wanted to go into a field that could help kids like my brother. I got a degree in speech pathology and audiology, and a masters in special education, and found my first job at the NYC Board of Education.
Many years ago, when I got married, Avi started talking about how he also wanted to get married one day. He didn’t have anyone in mind, but he wanted to follow my lead, just as he had when we were children. It was hard to hear him dream like that, because we didn’t think it was possible, or realistic.
And then…two years ago, Avi met his bashert, Shlomit. And who would have ever dreamed it, but she had also gone to SINAI—granted, several years after him, but still! Who could have imagined?!
Avi and Shlomit just celebrated their first anniversary, and they are an awesome couple. Avi has a job at a local pizza store, Shlomit works at a bridal shop, they live independently—and none of us could have imagined these possibilities back in the 1980’s when Avi was starting at SINAI.
Several years ago I was offered the opportunity to teach full time at SINAI at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. It felt like destiny: this is where my brother started his journey almost 40 years ago, and here I am today.
Every day in my SINAI classroom, I look into my students’ eyes and see the promise that lies ahead. No matter what their challenges are, I see bright possibilities in their futures. I know this to be true, because I have witnessed it myself. With the right guidance and support, anything is possible.
Leah Commer is a special education teacher at SINAI at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. She still shares a special bond with her brother Avi, and continues to show devotion and compassion to her family and friends. She can’t wait to see what great things her brother Avi will accomplish next.