Since graduating college, I have taught classes in the Makor College Experience. This post-high school program teaches adults with cognitive disabilities the life skills needed to strive for their highest level of functioning and independence. Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus plays host to MCE’s classrooms and student dorms. Five years ago, clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Glicksman founded this program at YU to give students with disabilities an authentic Jewish college experience.
On Thursday afternoon, three students graduated from our program: Avrumi Mermelstein, Yehoshua Fineberg and Menachem Aron Wollack (MA). At graduations, teachers and students undergo mixed emotions. On the one hand, my students completed a four-year program and deserve to feel accomplished. On the other hand, YU will lose its beit midrash superstars. I will lose daily interactions with three of my dearest students. Ready or not, teachers must accept the reality of graduation and say farewell. However, before YU and Washington Heights say goodbye to each graduate, I will present the life lessons Avrumi, Yehoshua and Menachem Aron brought to our beloved yeshiva.
Avrumi Mermelstein hails from Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, a place known for its superb hospitality and friendliness. At YU’s Wilf campus, nobody is friendlier than Avrumi. For example, After 8 a.m. Shacharit, Avrumi goes up to guys taking off their tefillin and asks, “Where are you going for Shabbos? What are you doing today?” Before Mincha, Avrumi approaches students learning Torah and asks, “Anything doing?” In both situations, Avrumi greets and speaks to all types of YU students. He doesn’t judge where you’re from or what religious views you hold. To Avrumi, a Jew is a Jew. Observing his unique friendliness should inspire us to approach new faces at shul and around town.
While schmoozing with Avrumi, he will likely tell you about a recent simcha or celebration in his neighborhood. “Hartstark had a baby boy. Bronstein’s granddaughter just became a kallah.” Around YU, Avrumi informs students of these simcha alerts, even though YU students have no clue who Hartstark or Bronstein are. For each simcha alert delivered, Avrumi wears a smile brighter than the moon. This reaction displays Avrumi’s superpower. He possesses the rare ability to show and feel extreme simcha for another person’s good news. After hearing about someone’s engagement, family bris or graduation, Avrumi claps and lets out shouts of joy. At my cousin Avigael and Meir Averson’s wedding, Avrumi produced the best ketzad mirkadin moves out of anyone.
Avrumi’s joy for another’s success inspires me to think along these lines. Even though I’m not married, I’m happy Jake got engaged. Even though I’m not pregnant yet, I’m happy Jenny is. Even though I didn’t get a job yet, I’m glad BlackRock hired Jordan. Contrary to popular belief, good news for someone else is good news for everyone.
At the end of every conversation, Avrumi recites his famous catchphrase, “Only simchas.” He coined this term before social media existed. On a simple level this line means only good things ahead.
Avrumi dreams of working one day in a nursing home. He wishes to use his friendly skills to assist and cheer up elderly people.
Yehoshua Fineberg hails from the Five Towns, a neighborhood known for its strong Orthodox Jewish presence. On YU’s Wilf Campus, nobody is shtarker and frummer than Yehoshua Simcha Fineberg. At night, Yehoshua learns on the second floor of YU’s Glueck Beit Midrash for hours. Swing by around 7:30 p.m., and you’ll catch Yehoshua reading a Torah verse or Chasidic teaching out loud. In the morning, Yehoshua takes a slow and steady approach for davening. By the time he finishes Shemoneh Esrei, everyone else starts Aleinu.
Although the task of reading Hebrew presents many challenges to someone with a cognitive disability, Yehoshua fights through. He refuses to let intellectual obstacles bar him from connecting to God. This man’s relentless toil for spiritual growth should inspire us to push excuses aside and shoot for a higher level of Yiddishkeit. No matter your level. No matter your skills. No matter your limitations. Everyone can connect to Hashem.
On Tuesday nights, Yehoshua gives a mussar speech to YU students. In these talks, Yehoshua offers simple but practical advice. “Don’t be late for night seder. Respect your parents. Don’t grow a beard if it will annoy your parents.” Each week, 10 guys come to hear Yushalah (nickname), or Rav Shia (nickname). These students deem Rav Shia a mini rebbe or mashpia. Following these talks, listeners ask Yehoshua for brachas. A request Rav Shia loves to fulfill by reciting blessings like these: “I hope you find a shidduch. I hope you continue learning.” Like Avrumi, Yehoshua is happy and excited over another person’s success.
Unlike most 24-year-olds, Yehoshua finds joy in the simple pleasures of life. At YU student-run events, his smile grows wider than Subway $5 Footlongs. At Yachad shabbatons, Yehoshua’s face lights up more than Madison Square Garden. During each social gathering, Yehoshua walks up to new faces and introduces himself like this. “Hi, what’s your name? I’m Yehoshua Fineberg.” If the social gathering has an activity, Yehoshua jumps to participate and brings incredible energy. The opportunity to meet new people and experience some form of programming makes Yehoshua’s day. This man doesn’t need a fancy car, a big house nor a CEO job to feel joy. He locates happiness via regular life.
Yehoshua hopes to work one day as a rabbi’s assistant for early childhood grades. He hopes to get married and create a house filled with shalom bayit. One day, Yehoshua wishes to finish all of Torah. His powerful dreams have inspired me to get my priorities straight.
Unlike my other two students, Menachem Aron Wallach has enjoyed YU’s campus for more than a decade. First at MTA’s Patach program, now a member of MCE. This tenure has allowed him to form connections and friendships with everybody at YU. Everybody includes YU’s security guards, semicha students, rosh yeshivas, deans and president, Rabbi, Dr. Ari Berman. During a regular walk on YU’s campus, Menachem Aron dishes out high fives to tens of students and provides every security guard a warm greeting. Two years ago, this master of connections earned a manager position on YU’s basketball team.
Besides schmoozing and forming connections, Menachem Aron loves Torah and Yiddishkeit. This year, he made a siyum on Masechet Pesachim. For people not in the know, Pesachim contains over 120 pages of Gemara and takes serious work to finish. On the week of his birthday, Menachem Aron published a dvar Torah in MTA’s weekly Torah Journal. At every YU tisch or messibah, observers can find Menachem Aron in the big circle dancing like it’s nobody’s business. This man loves being Jewish and personifies the pasuk “Ashrenu Ma-tov Chelkuni”—How fortunate is it to be a Jew.
Menachem Aron’s actions should inspire us to find joy in simply being Jewish. Attend a tisch. Join a shiur. Maybe the Semichat Chaver shiur at your shul. Get your fix from Yiddishkeit like Menachem Aron.
For Rabbi Jesse Shore’s class, Menachem Aron arranges guest speakers to come and speak for Makor students. Without fail, Menachem Aron always gets a YU rabbi to make time for Makor. This year’s speakers include Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, Aryeh Leibowitz, Netanel Wiederblank and Reavean Brand. Aware of the tremendous opportunity, Menachem Aron gathers the courage to approach each massive Torah scholar and invite them in. All of us should emulate Menachem Aron’s bravery and approach Torah scholars. Don’t be afraid.
As an intern for YU, Menachem Aron helps plan events and coordinates logistics. He works with administrative faculty to give YU students the best possible college and yeshiva experience. One day, Menachem Aron wants to help run several Jewish organizations.
In the future, my and Rabbi Jesse Shore’s students will not become partners at law firms. Nor will they become ER doctors, Rosh yeshivas or pilots. But life’s about more than fancy titles and making money. It’s about using your unique skills to make the world a better place. It’s about trying your best to make Hashem proud. Rabbi Shore and I are certain our graduates will fulfill both missions.
My graduates, I hope each of you gets married. I hope each of you gets a job. I hope each of you makes Hashem proud. Go for your dreams and never settle.
To quote Avrumi: “I’m waiting for a simcha.”
To quote Menachem Aron: “Yosef, your class is getting too easy for me.”
To quote our program’s unofficial lawyer, Rabbi Dani Rapp: “Shoot for the moon. Because if you fail, you will at least change yourself in the process.”
To quote Yehoshua: “When is Moshiach coming?”
To quote Avrumi: “Only simchas.”
To quote Menachem Aron: “I’m exhausted.”
To quote Yehoshua: “I want everyone to get married.”
To quote Ari Jordan: “Our imperfections are what make us great.”
To quote Rabbi Netanel Leibowitz: “See people for the good things they do.”
To quote Zack Pollack: “Everybody has challenges. Learn to live with your challenge and push forward.”
To quote Ezra Silfen: “You gotta believe in yourself.”
To quote Makor Graduate JJ Goldstein: “I love learning Torah.”
To quote Makor Director Dr. Stephen Glicksman: “Everyone must accept their limitations and strive to achieve within their limits.”
Till next time.
Your teachers and staff
Daniel Stern, Zak Shayne, Dr. S. Glicksman, Rabbi Jesse Shore, Yosef Silfen, Dovid, Tanner.
If you would like to hear more about the Makor program, email me, Jsilfen@mail.yu.edu I’ll send the info along to our head staff.
If you would like to meet the guys or hire them for a job or fundraiser, also email me, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have an interest in helping sponsor or host our Teaneck shabbaton, please email me, Jsilfen@mail.yu.edu