A marriage made in heaven

An adoptive brother and sister with Down syndrome marry in the mystical town of Safed

Avichai and Keren Ben-Baruch521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avichai and Keren Ben-Baruch521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Six years ago, no rabbi in Israel would marry a couple with Down syndrome.
People with Down were considered to be mentally ill – a fallacy.
But the genuine love between two Down youngsters convinced their parents that no obstacle should stand in their way.
Avichai and Keren Ben-Baruch, adoptive brother and sister, married each other in Safed in July last year, amid the rejoicing of the close-knit community. The ceremony was performed by no less an official than Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.
“It was a beautiful wedding, outdoors at the Red Khan. All of their friends and everyone involved in their education came and danced and laughed and cried.
Rabbi Eliyahu said that at times he had to close his eyes in order not to cry from emotion.”
So says Chaya Ben-Baruch of Safed, biologist and mother of 10 children, the younger five of whom were born with Down syndrome. Avichai, 21, Ben- Baruch’s only biological son with Down, was born fourth in the family. They adopted Keren, now 20, when she was nine days old. The family was then living in Anchorage, Alaska.
“Keren’s biological parents came to the house at 10 a.m., and left her in my arms at 12:30 p.m. I breastfed her, as a twin to Avichai,” says Chaya. Their younger siblings are adopted or permanently fostered.
Avichai and Keren decided to marry while still in their early teens. At Avichai’s bar mitzva, celebrated at the Western Wall, he prayed aloud to be granted Keren as his bride. Keren, who has always regarded her adoptive brother as her best friend, was entirely comfortable with the idea.
Chaya and her husband, Yisrael, gave the youngsters five years to think it over and change their minds, but they never stopped planning their future together.
“They’d come home from a wedding and compare notes, saying, ‘At our wedding we’re going to hire this caterer, order these flowers...’ We saw that they love and respect each other, so we said, why not?” Chaya and Yisrael battle daily, on several fronts, for their children’s right to lead ordinary lives. Many parents eventually consent to placing their adult Down children in sex-separated hostels, but for the Ben-Baruchs, that’s not an option.
“We married Avichai and Keren to each other so that no one can separate them,” says Chaya.
There were social barriers at first.
“Some people have a problem with their having grown up as brother and sister,” Chaya says matter-of-factly. “But they’re not blood relatives. There’s no reason on earth to forbid them to marry.”
To those worried about possible offspring with two Down parents, Chaya explains that they won’t have children of their own. Almost every male born with Down syndrome is sterile. There are only three known instances of Down fathers.
Keren’s school only reluctantly allowed her to continue studying, because there had never been a married student there. Having consulted their own rabbi, they allowed her to stay, and Keren will finish her last two years of school covering her hair with a scarf, as she began to do when she married.
The young couple lives a quasi-independent life, supported by an invisible supportive net created largely by their parents. They live in their own apartment, one floor down from their family home. One neighbor is responsible for checking in on their home regularly, taking note of household items that need replacing and reminding them to keep their laundry and housekeeping up to date. Avichai’s functionality is described as minimum-level, while Keren reads and understands math. But Avichai is gregarious and street-savvy, while Keren is uncomfortable talking with strangers. Their complementary skills overlap in daily life, as in shopping, which they were taught to do in school. Keren makes out the list and handles the money, while Avichai fills the shopping cart and asks people in the supermarket to help him find products they can’t locate.
Avichai is finishing his last year at school and works part-time in a protected factory. Keren works once a week at a charity organization. Her parents expect that once she finishes her education, she’ll work there every day.
Chaya continues teaching the couple life skills, like how to run the washing machine and dryer. Their kitchen is dairy, to keep kashrut simple. Although Chaya still packs their lunches every day, they make their own simple dinners when they return home.
The couple enjoys a busy social life in the Safed community.
“They get invited to weddings and bar mitzvas that we ourselves don’t know about. People invite them out so much, sometimes I have to beg them to eat a Shabbat meal with us,” laughs Chaya. “I don’t sit up waiting for them.”
The Ben-Baruchs have long dreamed of a group home. When making aliya in 1994, they applied to several kibbutzim. But they found that none would accept a family with Down children.
“It’s ironic,” says Chaya, “because nowadays, some kibbutzim welcome special- needs people into group homes. They generate income from the homes.”
But the family’s point of view has changed with time and experience. “If my kids were living in a conventional group home, they’d have shelter, social workers, food, vacations, people to take them to their doctor’s appointments. But they’d lose their freedom. They’d have to live by rigid rules, sleeping and eating when they were told to.”
All the same, the Ben-Baruchs dream of creating an independent group home for married Down couples in the North of Israel. The couples would live cooperatively, with a coordinator and professional staff close by to address their needs. Chaya is actively seeking to cooperate with social services in order to realize this dream.
“I want them to manage just fine on their own, when we’re not around to take care of them anymore. With several Down children living under one roof, growing and supporting each other day by day, it was like having our own group home. We learned by experience how important it is that they have each other.”
Modestly, Chaya gives her children the credit for their achievements, although in fact it’s her forward-looking attitude and drive that have stretched them to achieve much more than what society expects. Seeing Down adults marrying and living well has inspired other Down families and given them better hopes for their children’s futures.
Indeed, at Avichai and Keren’s wedding, one father approached Chaya and told her, “You taught me to look at my kid differently: with pride.”Chaya Ben-Baruch gives talks on the needs of special-needs people. She can be reached at chaya2426@gmail.com.