Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 20, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly

















Home and Family
Refoel's Story
by Sheila Segal

We have intentionally changed some facts to protect the privacy of the people involved. If you guessed their identity, keep it to yourselves.

I sat on the faded wooden bench in the park. It was Shabbos afternoon, and this playground was filled with the happy sounds of children at play. We were visiting my husband's elderly grandparents in Haifa, and I had brought the children to the park to allow Bubby and Zeidy a peaceful Shabbos nap. I waved to a grinning Moishy, and dutifully watched as he slid headfirst down the weatherbeaten slide. The other children were flying energetically on the huge black tires that served as swings. I sighed heavily to myself. It had been a difficult Shabbos, trying to harness the exuberant spirits of six lively children in unfamiliar surroundings. Bubby and Zeidy had been so thrilled when we finally agreed to come to them for a Shabbos but I hadn't realized how frail they had become. They loved having the children over, but I saw how much of a strain it was on them.

Absorbed in my thoughts, I barely noticed when a middle-aged woman joined me on the bench. Alongside her was a young boy in a wheelchair. "Good Shabbos," she greeted me with a pleasant smile. "Are you visiting? I don't think I've seen you here before." Warmed by her friendliness, I introduced myself. "Oh, yes. I know that Kahns. They live on Rechov Regev, don't they? They're such a sweet couple." I nodded, marveling at the closeness of this community. "I'm Rina Levine. I come here almost every nice day. Refoel loves to be out and see other children. This park is one of his favorite spots." She stroked his thin hand as she spoke. We chatted casually for several minutes, yet my glance kept straying to the delicate boy in the wheelchair. Propped up securely in the chair, his bright brown eyes darted eagerly, drinking in the cheerful romping of the children. Just then, a young boy came up and asked if he could wheel Refoel around. You could see the pleading and excitement in two sets of eyes as they waited for the affirmative nod. It came and the two were off.

For a long moment, Rina gazed thoughtfully at me. "I see that you're curious about Refoel. If you've got some time, I'll share his story with you." I agreed, piqued by curiosity and compassion.

"I'll start from the very beginning, when I first met Refoel." My eyes opened wide. "First met?" I repeated hesitantly. She nodded briefly, then plunged into her tale. "For a number of years, I was part of a Bikur Cholim organization. Every week I would visit patients in a local hosptial. One day I received an urgent phone call. There was a nurses' strike on, and extra volunteers were needed desperately in the Children's Ward.

"`The nurses go off duty at 12 o'clock. Please be there on time to care for the children,' a crisp voice informed me. I could almost hear the scratch of a pen as she marked off names on her list.

"I arrived several minutes early that day. To my surprise, I discovered that the nurses only went off duty at 4:00. Only afterwards would I realize that this was yet another example of Yad Hashem which I would encounter throughout my relationship with Refoel. A harried nurse requested that I hold a baby who was screaming piteously in the next room. `He's got cerebral palsy and he's blind,' I was told matter-of-factly. `He's been abandoned by his natural parents.' I rocked the little boy gently in my arms, crooning softly to settle him. Feeling how damp his diaper was, I proceeded to change him. If I had arrived after four O'clock, when the nurses had left for the day, he would most certainly have been freshly changed. And I would never have discovered that this tiny Jewish boy had not yet had a bris mila.

"Shocked and upset, I paced the halls, clutching the infant securely in my arms. His big brown eyes followed the lights in the corridor, pausing with grave interest to peer at the pictures in their heavy gilt frames. I stopped in front of a large painting. The baby seemed captivated by the swirls of color, for he gurgled delightedly.

" `This baby can't be blind,' I decided. I pounced on the head nurse to share my discovery but she was distracted. `Maybe he can see shapes,' she reluctantly conceded, `but he's got so many other problems, it hardly makes much difference.' I bristled angrily at the way this child was being treated. `He needs love -- a mother's love.' I was furious at his mother for simply abandoning him. It wasn't his fault that he had been born with such severe medical problems.

"I went home that night, determination and despair churning inside me. I would make sure that the four-month-old infant would have a proper bris. Yet where could I find a home for him?

"I found myself becoming obsessed with this baby. Often, after arriving home from visiting him, I would call the Children's Ward to check on his condition. Was he covered properly? Might he be uncomfortable and fretting? I couldn't keep him out of my mind. I spent hours on the telephone trying to find a home for him. He couldn't stay at the hospital indefinitely and the nurses had mentioned a possibility of his being sent soon to an institution, perhaps a Christian one.

"One night, after another fruitless round of phone calls, an incredible thought struck me. Why not keep the baby myself? We would be the perfect family for him! Trembling with emotion, I shared my idea with my husband, who approved wholeheartedly. The following day, I gathered my children around the dining room table and held a family conference about the fate of the infant. My oldest was 17 at the time, the youngest 3. All eight children were perched on our worn chairs, eager to offer an opinion. My husband described the boy's severe limitations and the difficulties involved in caring for such a child. To my great pride and relief, the children all agreed that we should take him.

"`We'll help you take care of him, Ima,' six-year-old Bluma offered. `Hurray!' we're getting a new baby!' whooped the twins. Tears coursing down my cheeks, I felt a heavy rock lift from my heart. I knew that we could make a difference to this helpless little boy.

"A fervent blessing from our rov still ringing in our ears, my husband and I traced our steps to the hospital to claim the baby. While my husband filled out reams of paper and stacks of forms, I paced the halls nervously. After visits to the social worker, doctors, and the head nurse from Pediatrics, the baby was finally released into our custody. His natural parents had refused to sign the necessary papers, so we were only his guardians, not adoptive parents."

Rina looked at me, having paused in her reminiscenses. "That was the easy part," she said, a faint smile playing on her lips. "Once we brought him home, the hard part began." I hung avidly on her words, amazed at this courageous woman and her incredible narrative of mesiras nefesh.

"Six weeks after my seeing the baby for the first time, we took him home with us. When he was almost six months, he had a bris mila. We named him Refoel Chaim. The whole neighborhood rejoiced with us. My friends were extremely supportive. Some thought I was crazy, but they still buoyed up my spirits when I struggled. Refoel was miserable when we first brought him home. He cried for hours non-stop. He was very spastic and certainly in some pain. He wasn't on any medication at that time. Frantic from worry and sheer exhaustion, I would gladly have handed him over to his mother if she had knocked on my door then. Boruch Hashem we survived that ordeal. Refoel is ten years old now and a happy child." Rina glanced fondly at the youngster who was still being wheeled around the playground, now by a girl, blonde braids swinging impishly. She was chattering rapidly to him, sharing her secrets. The two giggled companionaly, secure in their world. Refoel looked at his `mother' to see if she was appreciating how happy he was. As their glances locked, his eyes sparkled. A wide grin revealed his love for this special woman.

"The kids adore him," Rina commented, her face glowing. She leaned forward and our heads almost touched. "Do you know what my 12-year-old son said yesterday? Someone asked him if he was jealous of all the attention Refoel gets in our home. His answer was simple. `What would we have done without Refoel?'"

Rina relaxed; a dreamy look crept into her eyes. "He's a special neshoma. He listens to our davening so carefully. He loves when my husband or one of the boys learn aloud at home. He seems to follow each word they say."

She paused. "He's made each of us a better person. My daughter's teacher called me last week. She sees how Michali is always the first to help children who are left out or defend those teased by the rest of the class. Refoel has given us so much."

Rina noticed my admiring look and added hastily, "Please don't get the wrong impression. Some people think I'm such a tzaddekes because I'm taking care of a handicapped child. It's not like that at all. We consider Refoel our son, even if we haven't been able to adopt him formally. And for a son, no effort or trouble is too much."

I sat silently on the bench, mulling over Rina's last comment. Some child wheeled Refoel back, his cheeks ruddy, his eyes bright. Rina rose and gripped the handles of his wheelchair. "Good Shabbos. It was nice meeting you. Think about all the women you know. I'm sure many of them do acts of chessed that few people are aware of. It's just that in my situation, it's more apparent." She smiled wryly and walked away. In a short while, I was surrounded by a circle of happy faces. "Ima, this is such a fun park. Can we come back again?" Still bemused by my encounter with Rina, I nodded distractedly.

"Who were those people, Ima? Do you know them?" Rachel curiously eyed the retreating form of a woman, navigating a wheelchair in front of her.

"That's a special lady, with a special son," I answered quietly, Refoel's story still echoing softly in my ears.


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