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Opening Doors for Dani

Machla Abramovitz

It has been said that bearing and raising children changes the tapestry of the soul. Kathy Laszlo can certainly testify to that fact. The birth of her firstborn son, Dani, set in motion a chain of life-altering events that brought Kathy from Hungary to Toronto and brought religious Judaism into her life. Along the way, Kathy became a trailblazing advocate for her child and other children who shared his challenges.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Budapest, Hungary. Kathy was twenty-four when she and her husband, Andrew, welcomed their firstborn son, Dani. Almost from the onset of Dani’s birth, Kathy could see that all was not well with her baby. Dani didn’t achieve the typical milestones that mothers anticipate with such pleasure — crawling, walking, and enunciating their first word. Dani’s pediatrician assured them that this developmental delay was the result of poor eyesight and muscle tone. “He’s too good,” the doctor excused the lag, “he rarely cries.” Kathy longed to believe the doctor, but even though she was an inexperienced first-time mother, she sensed that reality was very different.

While many mothers might speak of being determined to help their children, not too many would go as far as Kathy did. In 1988, prior to the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall (on November 9, 1989), she and her husband hastily packed their bags and their child and escaped to Vienna, never to return. There, under the care of JIAS, they took up residence as Jewish immigrants and were placed on the waiting list for emigration. A Viennese pediatrician diagnosed Dani’s problem and labeled it autism. This diagnosis, Kathy says, propelled them toward Canada, a country that provides governmental health coverage. By the time the Laszlos arrived in Toronto, Dani already had appointments scheduled with local pediatricians.

Though the government provided the Laszlos with health coverage, those first few years were far from easy. In Hungary, Kathy had been educated as an accountant; in Toronto, lacking a working knowledge of English and Canadian certification, she was forced to work as a cleaning lady for three years. In the evenings she took English classes. Her husband, who was unemployed, stayed home with Dani those first few months. When I ask her how she dealt with the grueling schedule and less-than-ideal employment, she tells me simply, “Everything I do, I enjoy.”

At the insistence of doctors, Kathy and Andrew were directed to find an appropriate school for Dani, who, at the age of two and a half, was still neither walking nor talking. It was then, Kathy believes, that she saw clear signs of G-d’s intervention. One day Andrew entered an Orthodox Hebrew day school, only to discover that the secretary was Hungarian. This secretary directed him to the Zareinu Educational Centre of Metropolitan Toronto, a newly established Orthodox Jewish institution that provided personalized therapy and treatments to children with physical and developmental disabilities. Kathy now recognizes Zareinu and its plethora of professionals and volunteers as the impetus for her development, and Dani’s, as religious Jews. But, at the time, neither she nor her husband was optimistic about Dani’s acceptance into the school or about its very viability.

“We weren’t Orthodox and we didn’t we have money to pay tuition,” she explains. She and her husband were amazed when neither of these issues posed a problem. “Zareinu,” we were told, “accepts every Jewish child, and as far as tuition was concerned, it would be seeking subsidies.”

At first, the welcoming attitude seemed suspicious to the Laszlos. “With our Communist mentality, we were convinced that there must be a catch,” Kathy explains. “After all, nobody does something for nothing. But what choice did we have?”

They enrolled Dani, anticipating a “catch” that never materialized. To their amazement, they soon discovered that the teachers and therapists outnumbered the students two to one. “There were fourteen teachers for seven students. We were convinced that the school would fail.” Logistically speaking, they may have been right; they didn’t realize that the school relied on a willing donor base among the Orthodox community.

“There was a limo company that donated its services,” Kathy remembers, “so every day, rather than a bus, a limo would pull up in front of our apartment and pick up Dani to bring him to school.”

The Zareinu community proved to be Kathy’s first significant encounter with Orthodox Jews since her adolescence. “I always thought that religious Jews were dry and cold. I saw now that they were very much like us.” She also saw just how giving many of them were. Zareinu arranged for a different mother to take Dani home with her every day in order to enable Kathy to continue attending her English-language classes.

Dani loved Zareinu. He blossomed as a result of the warmth and professional attention that was provided. Within a short period of time, together with Kathy’s at-home therapy sessions, he achieved real progress in mobility and sound pronunciation. During this period, Kathy, “out of respect,” as she puts it, began providing Dani with kosher sandwiches for school. That small step led to koshering her kitchen. She also changed her style of dress, switching from slacks to skirts. It wasn’t long before Kathy started to feel part of a community. “Deep down everybody wants to belong to a group,” she muses. “The Zareinu community liked us and invited us into their homes. It felt good.”

 

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