Shimmi Dunner z’l
Rebbetzin Hadasa Dunner
Shimmi!! Shimmi Dunner!! This is a farewell to one of London’s most beloved characters and it is a dedication to Shimmi’s most devoted and admired parents – Rav z’tl and Rebbetzin Dunner a’h.
Shimmi was an individual with Down syndrome, who was niftar on Rosh Chodesh Sivan at the ripe old age of 71. Although age 71 is generally not considered a ”ripe old age”, in reference to those with Down syndrome 71 is generally considered record-breaking.
Shimmi was born in 1946. His parents survived the trauma of World War II, when they were thrown a new trauma – the challenge of coping with a most unusual child. Shimmi was the sixth child born into a boisterous and lively household. In 1946 a child with Down syndrome was considered a total misfit and nearly all parents who were given such a child by Hashem chose to hide the child in a care home and they were never seen again. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Dunner never contemplated such a move. In their emunah peshuta they finally accepted that this child was a full gift from Shomayim and he was to remain an integral part of the family. B’H nowadays this has practically become the norm, but in 1946 it was almost unheard not to hide away such a ”damaged” child. Everybody is convinced that Shimmi lived so long because he was always surrounded by love, care and devotion. Shimmi was never an embarrassment to the family and the way he was accepted in society has set the norm of acceptance for all those special children. HIs parents paved the way and set the tone of integration simply because they considered him fully acceptable within his own limitations.
In 1946 there was no thought of a special school for special children. Shimmi obviously could not be integrated into a typical school in those days as no one had any experience in what to do to accommodate him. He therefore went to a local non-Jewish special school which is quite unthinkable in today’s terms. His parents never compromised on his Yiddishkeit so he never ate with the other pupils, but came with his own packed lunch. On days when there was some sort of celebration in the centre Shimmi’s parents were forewarned and he arrived there with his specially prepared private snack. Never would he partake of questionable food offered at the centre. On Friday afternoon, it was always an item on the busy family timetable to make sure that Shimmi was fetched from the centre with plenty of time to prepare for Shabbos. Rav Dunner was completely consistent in the way he educated Shimmi. Every time that there was a bread meal at home Rabbi Dunner would painstakingly sit and bensch with Shimmi, word by word all the way through to the end. Rav Dunner would never become frustrated or diverted from his task, however impatient Shimmi became. Likewise, every day Shimmi laid tefillin and it was a similar scenario of a loving father sitting patiently with a restless, hurried son.
Shimmi never could read, even after all the effort invested. Aleph beis was about the total limit of his ability. Likewise, with numbers he never mastered 1+1. But he was a ”man of the world” and he filled a major spot in society. He loved to be given a kibud in shul and marched around the rows of mispallelim afterwards, accepting a personal yashar kochacho for whatever minor task he had fulfilled. On the flip side, he was deeply hurt if he was not offered a kibud and he would let people know that he was disgusted at not having been offered any task to do.
The early years of Shimmi’s childhood were most challenging. One incident became etched in family history when Rabbi Dunner took his son for a Shabbos afternoon walk to give the Rebbetzen a well- deserved rest. Shimmi chose to join a bus queue and entered a bus. Rabbi Dunner had an impossible task trying to explain to the conductor that he, Rabbi Dunner, wanted the conductor to coax Shimmi off the bus. The conductor could not fathom the reluctance of the venerable Rabbi Dunner to come onto the bus to take his son off. Life with Shimmi was always a challenge, but amusing too.
Shimmi was extremely musical and one of the highlights of his yearly calendar was his choir on Motzoei Simchas Torah. Shimmi would collect all the boys from the Adass shul in Queen Elizabeth’s Walk and he would become the choirmaster; all the boys were his choir. He imitated the incumbent choirmaster who for many years was Mr. Molo Grunfeld. It was an experience to behold how Shimmi was in his element as the conductor and all the boys were subservient to him, with both sides taking solos, producing as perfect a choral experience as took place in shul on Yom Tov.
Shimmi’s parents treated him so much as normal and he absorbed all the qualities of charm and grace from them. If he was invited to a friend’s house for a meal he would collect buttercups from the overgrown fields and present them as a bouquet for his hosts, as he saw from his mother that one never came empty-handed.
Simchas were the highlights of Shimmi’s calendar. At the weddings of his nieces and nephews he was always the cheerleader, taking a pivotal role as coordinator of the dancing. At the Sheva Brochos on the following days he always had to give a drosha. No worry that his words were unclear and garbled, the family understood him perfectly and were always buoyed by his complimentary summary of the present baalei simcha and their good deeds. He shed a tear or two for relatives who had passed away making his droshas amusing and poignant.
For several years in his later life he was enrolled into the Kisharon Home as it was deemed more appropriate for his requirements. He spent many happy years there. To quote from the letter of nechama written by Dr. Beverley Jacobson, the Chief Executive of Kisharon:
Shimmy was a dearly beloved member of the Kisharon family and brought so much warmth, humour and love to the lives of everyone that knew him. There was never a dull moment when Shimmy was around. He was a born performer – either acting or conducting affairs – but always centre stage. He was a real role model for us all. Your family’s acceptance of him and the support you gave him to live a fulfilling life as an integral part of the community was so ahead of the times and has been the inspiration for much of the work we are doing today.
The family feel indebted to Kisharon for their loving care and attention to Shimmi, which went well beyond the call of duty.
For the last four years of his life he was cared for at Schonfeld Square where, once again, the caregivers went well beyond the call of duty and did everything possible to ensure Shimmi’s good health and comfort.
As his brother, the Dayan, said at his levaya in the olom haemes the tachtonim will be lemaaloh while the elyonim of this world will be lematoh there. In a play on words the Dayan said Shimmi was called a ‘Down’, which translates as lematoh in Hebrew, but with Hakodosh Boruch Hu these ‘Down’ people will be lemaaloh.
We have no doubt that Shimmi is safely in the company of his wonderful parents before the Kisei Hakovod.
As his father z’tl said when asked about giving Shimmi away, ” Shimmi is my mezuzah. He is the shemirah on my house for the whole family.
As was written on the shiva notice: Shimmi was a Nefesh noki v’ohuv who will be fondly remembered by the kehilla who were so proud of him. We are sure that people will smile when they think of Shimmi in his inimitable happy times.
Adapted from the Jewish Tribune with some edits