My Special Uncle, Sheldon Goldstein Shmuel Leib ben Nosson v'Esther z"l by Elana Horwitz Raanana, Israel
My uncle, Sheldon Goldstein (Shmuel Leib ben Nosson v'Esther z"l), was niftar on 26 Cheshvan, at the age of 66. Uncle Sheldon had Down syndrome. In his lifetime, he managed to learn to care for himself, and care for others. He learned to travel, read and vote. He volunteered in the community and made many friends. We will always love him.
Sheldon was born in the Bronx, New York in 1942 to my grandparents, Esther and Nathan Goldstein, who were immigrants from Europe from before World War II.
With effort, Grandma Esther and Grandpa Nathan succeeded in meeting with several experts, all of whom advised them to place their baby, who was "Mongoloid" (he had Down Syndrome), in an institution, because they believed that he would never walk, talk or amount to anything. My grandmother did not feel comfortable with this advice. She told my grandfather, "These "chachamim" keep dogs as pets in their homes, but they tell us to give up our child. Don't go to them anymore. We will handle things in our own way." Grandma Esther invented her own therapies, devoting many hours to singing with my uncle, patiently explaining concepts and instructing her son in life skills. Sheldon was taught to speak respectfully to neighbors. As a little girl, I remember my Grandma Esther instructing him to say, "Hello, Mr. Fried. Good morning, Mrs. Schneider." Everyone loved this child, who was "a sick boy but so polite".
As my uncle grew older, he attended some sort of general "class for the mentally retarded" at the local public school. He was taught to read, write and travel on busses and trains. This training served him well when he got a job as a message deliverer. He also volunteered at a center that provided meals for senior citizens – he set and cleared tables, and prepared coffee. People loved to have him around. He was caring, friendly and had a great sense of humor.
He was always provided with some pocket money. Sheldon enjoyed taking walks alone and choosing a can of soda or an ice cream. Not once was he cheated by a salesperson.
Miracles seemed to happen for him. As a toddler, he went missing in a bungalow colony. Everyone was frantic, asking, "Where's the baby, where's the baby?" He was found in the bullpen, with a gigantic bull and Sheldon just staring at each other. He also survived being hit by a car when he was seven. (The car accident made sense to him as an explanation for his being different from other people – he would say, "That's why I am the way I am.")
Shmuel Leib was taught to say brachos for food, and the brachos for the Torah. His bar mitzvah was celebrated with much joy. He was always welcomed in shuls, occasionally being honored with some sort of aliyah. My grandparents would say, "We won't make him into a brilliant scholar, but we can make him into a mentch." And they did.
After both of his parents died, Sheldon went to live with his brother and sister-in-law, my parents, Dr. Irwin and Carole Goldstein, in Queens, New York. When they made aliyah, so did he. In Israel, he won a well-deserved award for his volunteer work at a secondhand shop. My father kept him busy and happy with activities such as joining a special needs bowling group, a reading review class and a day center. These social activities were arranged privately by my father (My mother passed away a few years after making aliyah).
Around age 60, Sheldon began to experience gradual signs of mental and physical dementia – a condition similar to Alzheimers, that we learned affects people with Down Syndrome who live to an older age. Eventually, my father hired a foreign health care worker to live in his home and care for my uncle's needs. Hashem blessed us with an incredibly devoted aide from the Philippines.
My uncle finally succumbed to his health challenges. He died at home with his family, just as he always lived. My Uncle Sheldon brought together the esteemed Modern Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Beller of Raanana, and the renowned Chassidish Admor Mi'Cleveland / Clevelander Rebbe of Raanana, to say a hesped for him side by side at his funeral.
One thing the Clevelander said: We should all strive to enter and exit the world the way Shmuel Leib did – without sin.
One thing Rabbi Beller said: Sheldon's life teaches us that the word "no" is only in the imagination.
My purpose in this essay is to share information about my uncle's life. I do not mean to judge anyone for decisions that differ from the ones my family members made. I daven that Uncle Sheldon's life will inspire us to better the ways we relate to one another.
During his first visit to Eretz Yisrael, my uncle wrote this poem:
This is a far land of love
What can I say about Israel?
People live here in Israel
It is in our hearts and in our soul
Looking at people, that is what I see
They are in our hearts
I see an old man
And also I see an old woman
You could cry in your heart
Let's not forget our Rabbis
That we love so much
And let's not forget our kinder and our maidels
They always will be in our hearts
And in our soul
To be loved always
Please just listen what we say
Listen to the sound of pray
Come in with us to our synagogue
And pray with us
Together as one
And open up your heart
And you will know inside of you
Look up in the sky and you will see lights
The golden stars of Israel
by Sheldon Goldstein
This article first appeared in issue #14 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us