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Light Their Candle

Barbara Bensoussan

Superstar singer Yaakov Shwekey spends much of his life in the limelight, sharing his music with Jews the world over in a daunting lineup of performances. But the concert closest to his heart is his annual Chanukah performance for a group of special-needs children and their families. Meet the other Yaakov Shwekey — and his dynamic wife Jenine, who has dedicated her considerable passion and talent to special-needs children.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When Yaakov Shwekey first dated Jenine Cohen back in 2000, he wasn’t a superstar. “I maybe told my wife I could carry a tune back then,” he remembers. “I figured if the singing was going to happen, it would happen eventually.”

“He told me he sang, and I figured okay, we’ll have a great Shabbos table,” Jenine says.

But Jenine’s conversations left Yaakov rather nervous. “She kept talking about ‘her kids’ all the time,” he recounts. “I began to wonder if the shadchan had been holding back some crucial information!”

Eleven years later, they laugh as they remember those early conversations. Yaakov learned that his date (and soon-to-be wife) had already established a reputation as an impassioned advocate for special-needs children. At age 16, Jenine, a yeshivah girl from Deal, began helping the family of Rav Aharon Kamenetsky, the son of Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, with their special needs son Eliezer. “I became very close with Mrs. Kamenetsky, a young mother who was trying to juggle the needs of her special child along with all her other children,” Jenine says. “He was up all night, it was just overwhelming. But me, I fell in love with that kid. I couldn’t stop talking about him!

“Fifteen years ago,” Jenine remembers, “there were no clubs, no special activities for special needs kids. People didn’t talk about it. The parents had to struggle on their own, behind closed doors. They had no one to talk to.”

Along with her friends Chaya Gross and Mimi Bursztyn, Jenine began helping the Kamenetskys and then other families as well. Before the girls knew it, there were seven families of special-needs children relying on them to help out; when it became clear that all the other Kamenetsky kids except Eliezer were going off to summer camp, Jenine, Chaya, and Mimi started their very first summer camp for special children. Following that experience, the girls consulted with some leading rabbanim, including the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshivah and his son Rav Aharon, to discuss the need to provide relief to families with special-needs children. The result was a once-a-week activities group for their seven charges. The girls would provide supper and fun, with the guidance of professionals.

But the girls found their program in greater demand than they’d anticipated. The once-a-week group expanded to twice a week, then three times, and pretty soon the program had outgrown its host quarters.

“We had a dream to rent an apartment for our program,” Jenine recounts. “So we went to an askan in Lakewood and explained the situation. He agreed that there was a real need, and he brought us to a gvir in the community.

“We got there, and there he was sitting behind a desk. We were so nervous — this was our dream that was on the line!” she continues. “We explained what we were doing — art, music, supper, baths — and he agreed, ‘Yes, there is a need; what you’re doing is important.’ Then he told us, ‘But come back when you’re grown ladies, with sheitels on your heads.’ ”

Jenine left the house red-faced with fury. “I felt like, how could he tell us no!” she says. That anger lit a fire under her; she wasn’t going down without a fight. In a last-ditch attempt to win the apartment, she drove straight to the home of its owner, knocking on his door at ten o’clock at night.

“When we finally left, we had the keys in our hand, and were grinning ear to ear,” she says triumphantly. “We felt like we’d won the lottery!”

Now as proud, rent-free tenants of an apartment, the girls forged ahead. A friend of Jenine’s family, a woman artist, painted murals on the walls. Tables, chairs, and supplies were bought or donated, and people volunteered to cook the suppers.

“Yes, don’t forget the lady who made the spaghetti and meatballs every week,” Jenine laughs. “She still does them for us. They’re still great!”

Maybe the meatballs haven’t changed, but Jenine’s dream has taken on entirely new dimensions. Today, 15 years after that first volunteer effort, the Special Children’s Center in Lakewood has expanded into a multifacility institution servicing hundreds of children, and handling a budget of over $2 million. It also happens to be the favorite cause of her husband. When Yaakov Shwekey married Jenine, it was pretty clear from the get-go that her “kids” from the center would become his kids as well.

 

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