Growing up in the 1970’s, I remember hearing the whispered words from friends and neighbors in shul.
“She has a brother,” the words would be said with a knowing look.
“He doesn’t live with the family, he is in a…,” another furtive glance to make sure no one was listening. “A home.”
Just forty years ago, disabled children were kept hidden from sight and were the subjects of hushed conversation. All that changed when a few brave parents got together to share their experiences and support each other. Rabbi Manfred Gans, spiritual leader of Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills and the father of a child with Down Syndrome, placed an ad in The Jewish Press, inviting parents of children with Down Syndrome to join him for a meeting.
“Each one thought they were the only ones in their situation because you never saw these kids out on the street,” Gwen Bloom, Director of Communications for Otsar Family Services, told The Jewish Press. “The first meeting attracted about forty people. The second drew over one hundred.”
The parent group grew into Otsar Family Services, officially launched in 1980 in order to provide support, and later programs and services for religious Jewish children with developmental disabilities.
“It was just a tiny office on Ocean Avenue, created to help parents, give them a listening ear and maybe find some programs for them,” explained Bloom, who has been with Otsar for twenty two years. “If you could refer a parent to a good doctor who could deal with their child’s needs, a good dentist, that was something useful.”
While there were services available at the time for the developmentally disabled, none met the unique needs of the Jewish community.
“Because there was no program that catered to Jewish children, these kids went to public schools and aside from not having kosher food available and learning all about Christmas, they were off every Sunday and every legal holiday, creating a tremendous hardship for their families, particularly working parents,” said Bloom. “There were respite programs for parents, but they offered very few days per year.”
Incorporating the assistance of leading professionals, Otsar created a program tailored to the specific needs of the Jewish community. While as a 501(c)(3) Otsar was a non-sectarian program and was not allowed to teach religion, the program was permitted to teach Jewish culture, finally offering the developmentally disabled a program that met their needs.
“The program was a huge success and, I believe, the first program of this type,” reported Bloom.
True to its name, Otsar soon became a valuable ally for parents who hoped to help their children make the most of their G-d given gifts, with a devoted group of professionals who worked closely with each and every client.
“Otsar’s staff believes in the value and worth of each individual, regardless of their abilities or disabilities,” explained Chashi Brand, Otsar’s Assistant Executive Director. “We are dedicated to helping our treasures live full and rewarding lives and to ultimately become active and accepted members of the community. Otsar makes a difference, one family at a time. At every age and every stage Otsar is there for families that need our assistance.”
Over the years, Otsar has evolved to meet the growing needs of the developmentally disabled community and their families and now serves over 400 families with a wide range of programs. Otsar’s clients range in age from infants who receive services in their own home, to senior citizens in their eighties.
“We want people to know that no matter what the age, we are here for them,” said Bloom.
Otsar’s Sunday and School Holiday program is one of the largest in New York City, with an organized, activity filled, stimulating program to keep children occupied. With classes including gym, baking, Movement in Motion and meticulously planned trips, children are entertained and enriched in a safe environment. Recent Sunday activities have included a visit from a magician/dentist as well as an excursion to the Great Parade in Crown Heights on Lag B’Omer.
The Sunday and School Holiday program benefits not just its one hundred and six participants but their families as well.
“Parents have a Sunday to spend with their other kids who also need their attention,” explained Bloom