Brooklyn, NY - Kosher Eatery’s Efforts To Accommodate Special Needs Teen Sparks Grassroots Efforts To Benefit Families With Disabled Kids
Brooklyn, NY - What began as a one of a kind night out for a special needs South Florida boy and his family may have spawned a new trend in the kosher restaurant business, catering to others with disabilities.
Leah Cohen, a Boca Raton mother of two, was hoping to include dinner at a restaurant on the itinerary for a family visit to New York to celebrate a niece’s bas mitzvah. Because her 13 year old son Ari suffers from Trisomy 9 Mosaic, a rare genetic disorder, the family seldom goes out to eat because of the many difficulties they encounter.
“One of Ari’s vocal chords is paralyzed so he doesn’t talk, he grunts and while he does have a device that talks for him it is very loud,” Mrs. Cohen told VIN News.
“When we do go out we see one person in the corner bowing their head, others rolling their eyes and the waiters just want to get us out of there. A lot of times if we are going out for someone’s birthday, my husband will just stay home with Ari because there is just so much involved when we take him.”
A member of the Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies group on Facebook, Mrs. Cohen said she loves seeing the pictures of restaurant meals posted by others on social media. Posts about Kasai, a Brooklyn hibachi restaurant which turns meal preparation into table-side entertainment, were particularly intriguing.
“I saw it and I felt it would capture Ari’s attention,” said Mrs. Cohen. “Ari is the funniest, most amazing boy you’ve ever met. He’s so courageous and brave, facing challenges every day and that was what motivated me to do this. I was sick and tired of him always being left out.”
Mrs. Cohen contacted the group’s administrator, Elan Kornblum, asking him if he could find out if the restaurant would be willing to accommodate Ari’s special needs and gear. With more than 20,000 members in the Facebook group, Mrs. Cohen wasn’t sure that she would even get a response but within an hour the arrangements had all been made.
The day before the Cohens’ planned to visit Kasai, Mrs. Cohen touched base with Victor Ebadi, the restaurant’s owner, to express her concerns that Ari might make other diners uncomfortable.
“He told me that as a member of Bnei Yisroel, Ari was his son too and that if anyone had a problem with Ari, he would personally kick them out of the restaurant,” recalled Mrs. Cohen. “He was very passionate about it and decided instead to open an hour earlier for us so that we could come when the restaurant was empty.”
When the Cohens got to Kasai on May 11th, waiters were at the ready, carrying Ari’s stroller into the restaurant, accommodating extra relatives who showed up unannounced and making sure that Ari had a steady supply of Snapple. Because Ari has difficulty chewing and Kasai has a limited children’s menu, the chefs prepared eggs for Ari at his request.
“They made them on the hibachi, just the way he likes them,” said Mrs. Cohen. “Then they cut up cucumbers for him exactly the way he likes. The chef sang ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It,’ for Ari about 15 times and he doesn’t even speak English.”
The night proved to be a resounding success. After getting back to Florida and sharing thoughts and pictures on the Facebook group as a thank you to Ebadi a few days later, Mrs. Cohen thought that the story of their night at Kasai was over.
In fact, it was just beginning.
While group members began liking and sharing the post, other parents of children with special needs contacted Mrs. Cohen, telling her that they too had been subjected to disapproving looks when they dined out with their families.
“People told me that they were so happy that we got to do this,” said Mrs. Cohen. “You never know if kids like this will have another opportunity to go out or what tomorrow may bring and when someone makes a comment or rolls their eyes, it hits hard.”
In addition to raising awareness to the difficulties of enjoying a night out with a special needs child, the Cohens’ experience struck a chord with many, becoming the most liked post in the group’s history. In a Facebook post written Wednesday morning, Kornblum said he had been contacted by numerous people and that he had spoken with Edabi to arrange another special needs evening at Kasai so that other children could enjoy both the antics and the menu at the restaurant.
“If we can allow a special child to have a special night, to see the knife juggling, flame tossing, fire burning experience, then we’ve brought a little more joy into their world,” wrote Kornblum.
Kornblum also announced the #foodieforward project, hoping to find additional kosher restaurants that would accommodate other families in similar situations. Within one day, Teaneck’s Doghouse had expressed interest in designating particular times for families with special needs children and Kornblum is planning to expand the project to kosher restaurants in other cities.
“We hope in general that restaurants and customers will be more conscious about this and be more respectful and understanding and we’ll try to coordinate more events for these families to enjoy some time with other families,” said Kornblum. “There really isn’t any organization that helps families with special need kids have a better experience at restaurants. We hope to change that.”
Mrs. Cohen said that she is inordinately grateful for the opportunity to pay it forward.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought it would take on the life that it has,” said Mrs. Cohen.. “This is something small for restaurants to do but it can be life changing for so many. I am the kind of person who doesn’t like attention but if this helps one family, if one family gets something out of this, I am in it 150 percent.”
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