My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Yeshayahu- Chap. 56
As the youngest of 5 children, then ages 14-24, I had always wanted a younger sibling. When told our mother was expecting, I was particularly ecstatic. Mama was older, already a grandmother and had not anticipated raising another baby. On June 8th, our parents’ 26th anniversary, “our” baby finally arrived.
When making plans for his bris, instead of happiness, Mama was crying all the time and our usually upbeat dad was very somber. Daddy, teary-eyed, told us that his brother, the pediatrician, thought there was something wrong with the baby. Daddy wanted to name our little brother after his own father, Sam Portman. However, his brother said they shouldn’t name him after their father, since there was “something wrong.” Not only did our dad have to deal with the unknown of “something wrong,” but he was being asked to defer something very important to him, to carry on his father’s memory through a namesake. Then, he told us that the rabbi and our uncle thought the baby should be “sent away” and not come home from the hospital. To the person, all 5 of us kids contested, insisting that our baby brother needed to come home with us.
From that day, little Sam Portman, born with Down Syndrome was included in everything we did as a family. While the only option for his education was a segregated, “special school,” when Shabbas arrived, Sam was at the Shabbas table and in shul just like the rest of the Portman kids and grandkids.
Sadly, JCC day camp was never an option for him, nor was Hebrew school; NCSY was not accessible to him. But when he turned 13, he had a bar mitzvah, chanting the brachot before and after the Torah reading and being addressed by the rabbi. He had practiced and learned the Hebrew words. Sam’s regular attendance at shul was a cornerstone of his upbringing. He was always musical and while he couldn’t read, he learned to daven from hearing the tunes and chanting the words. His job was to open the ark, whether for taking out or putting back the Torah, or for Anim Zemirot. When he finished, he backed away from the bimah and shook hands up and down the aisle, with guys coming from across the sanctuary, just to shake his hand.
Even after he moved into his group home, Sam was in shul with Daddy every Shabbas and on all the holidays. At the funerals for both of our parents, Sam recited the Kaddish from memory. While February is designated Jewish Disability Awareness Month, surely we should all commit ourselves to being more aware and more accepting EVERY DAY!
~Sara Portman Milner