In the 1970s, when Miriam Sheinin,* was a teenager, growing up in Queens, she joined a Zionist youth movement. That would ignite a love of Israel which only grew when she came on a one year trip to the Holy Land, where she eventually put down roots. She was also infused with a love of mitzvot that launched her on a journey to becoming observant. She now lives in Jerusalem.
Miriam was active in Soviet Jewry but not only in the way most people were. Shlomo, a refusenik from Moscow who got an exit visa came to Israel. Through her involvement with helping Soviet Jews, Shlomo discovered that Miriam’s maiden name was the same as his ex-wife’s. Miriam was able to sponsor the ex-wife and their son as “family.” They made aliyah. The ex-wife remarried and Miriam married Shlomo. Unfortunately, he died seven years ago.
Miriam married at 31, and she and Shlomo had seven kids, including a set of twins. But Miriam wanted more children – not hers, other people’s. She wanted a house full of unwanted children.
“When my youngest was three, my friend, Sara, took in two foster children with special needs and I was so jealous,” she says. “And my youngest wanted a baby. It was during the Intifada and I thought what would happen to my kids if something happened to me? Who would raise my children? I needed 24/7 merit and fostering is 24/7 chesed.”
“Sara had started placing other children in homes. Nurses from the maternity ward, new mothers and even well-known rebbetzins heard about her efforts and would call her up every time they needed a child placed. One day I told her, in passing, if she gets a baby girl, to give me a call.” A few weeks later, in May, Tova was born, with Down Syndrome and the Sheinins gratefully took her.”
My kids were crazy about her and she became a part of the family,” says Miriam. “I can’t explain how much we’ve learned and gained and how little people know about fostering children with a disability.”
I was chosen to speak at Tova’s Beit Yaakov elementary school graduation and I spoke about Parshat Terumah – about that famous palindrome that shows how when you give, you get more back. I was really aiming at all the people in the audience, students and teachers alike, who felt they were doing us a chesed by having a special education class in their school. I pointed out how much they had gained. They became more sensitive, attentive and hopefully grateful for all the “free gifts” they received from Hashem. The other mothers in our class were thrilled to have someone finally voice their feelings.
But Miriam stresses that the real heroes are the biological parents of special needs children, who, despite the fact that their dreams have come crashing down on them, take their babies home. I always compare myself and them to two people who perform the same mitzvah – one is commanded and one does it voluntarily. Who gets more reward? The one who is commanded. These are the natural parents.
Because of this, there is some tension when biological mothers of special needs children discover that Tova is a foster child, but as soon as Miriam expresses her appreciation for all they’re going through, and without having been given that choice, it dissipates.
“Tova is now 21. She’s finishing school and her future awaits. And that’s going to involve some changes we’ll all need to adapt to. We’ve gotten so much from having Tova as part of our lives.”
The Torah tells us that we should build our homes on chesed. And that’s exactly what Miriam has done. We think that chesed is the result of building a home but more often, a home is what results from doing chesed, making us the beneficiaries of more than we could possibly give in return.
*All names have been changed.