They told me he would not smile or walk. Now he’s married

The Israeli disability charity which supports married couples


Like any Jewish mother, Orit Matan hoped that her newborn son would grow up to be happy, eventually meet someone he loved, and get married.

But when Maor was born, doctors told her that dream was highly unlikely. In his early years, Maor showed signs of slow development. He would cry continuously, and nothing Mrs Matan did to soothe him seemed to help.

Mrs Matan and her husband, who live in Tel Aviv, struggled to find out from doctors what was wrong but, when he was four years old, Maor was diagnosed with autism.

For Mrs Matan, the diagnosis was both a relief and a devastating blow.

“We spent years searching for answers and then we had people telling me that he would not smile, he would not walk. They said not to expect much for him,” she says.

But Mrs Matan refused to accept the worst and promised herself that she would do what she could to encourage his development to the best of his ability.

“When Maor was younger we didn’t give up, we did a lot of therapies and we put him in a regular kindergarten. It was challenging but you do what you have to do. He was one of the only children like him in the school. No other parent had the courage to do that.”

Like many mothers of children with disabilities, Mrs Matan says she has had to fight to get what she wants.

Today Maor, 28, lives in Bnei Brak, a city east of Tel Aviv, home to a mostly strictly Orthodox community.

And in spite of the doctors’ early predictions, he does not live alone, or in the family home. Instead he has a one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Lilach, who is 35.

Mrs Matan never imagined she would live to see her son get married but he has, thanks to a unique marriage programme run by Ohel Sarah, one of Israel’s largest providers of services for the disabled.

One arm of the charity’s services is its One Heart marriage programme, which helps high-functioning couples with cognitive and physical disabilities get married, and supports them in their own apartment in the community.

Maor and Lilach, whose learning difficulties were compounded by the neglect she experienced as a child, met when they enrolled on the same course more than five years ago.

“I saw a course advertised that was teaching people with disabilities about married life and something about it spoke to me,” Mrs Matan says.

“I knew this was for Maor. He would say to me all the time that he wanted to get married but he didn’t know what married life was about.”

Despite wanting her son to be able to fulfil his ambition of finding a partner, even she could not imagine how it might work in practice or how he might let someone “other than his mother take care of him”.

She was worried that his disability might get in the way.

And still, she enrolled him on the course. But after two weeks he told his parents he was leaving.

“He was scared,” Mrs Matan explained. “He had met Lilach and he liked her, he had all these feelings that he didn’t understand.

“We did a lot of talking and in the end he stayed with it and by the end of the course he said ‘me and Lilach are going to get married and live in Jerusalem.’”

Stunned by his decisiveness, she says: “How could I ever stand in his way? He was in love and even more, here was someone else other than me saying they loved my son too. I didn’t think that would be possible.”

At the time Lilach was living in supported living accommodation with a group of other young women with disabilities.

After some toing and froing with her legal guardian, she was given permission to get married. It was at this point Mrs Matan turned to Ohel Sarah for help to prepare the couple for married life. “I knew it was not going to be easy for them,” she says.

At the charity’s head office, Milki Rechnitzer, who runs the marriage programme, does not shy away from the potential controversy around running such a programme.

“The programme is not for everybody,” she says.

“Obviously we are working with people with disabilities, we have to assess their needs and abilities.

“Safeguarding is very important. We have to see they are genuinely in love and that they want to be together, and they know what they are doing.”

Couples that come to the charity for help are assessed by social workers and therapists to check they are right for the programme.

She says: “Once we are sure they are capable and in a genuine relationship, then we help them by teaching them about married life. It is important to say that we don’t do the matching.”

For Mrs Matan what the charity does is simple. “People with disabilities have just as much a right to be loved as we do. It shouldn’t prevent them from being happy.”

Mrs Rechnitzer connects the couples to experts, who work with them to build on skills that will make married life easier, from teaching about the more mundane tasks such as budgeting, and housekeeping, to preparing them for the delicate and seriousness topic of intimacy.

Mrs Rechnitzer explains: “We have sexologists who work with the couples. First of all they must be able to understand consent and secondly we teach them about sex in the context of religious law.”

Maor and Lilach are one of five sets of couples who meet once a week with a marriage councillor to help them work on their communication.

Having weekly therapy has helped Maor get better at expressing himself emotionally.

Mrs Matan explains: “Lilach has no problem expressing her emotions. She will tell Maor she loves him all the time, but Maor needs help to understand the value of saying it back. He might feel it but not know when to say it.”

On a visit to see the couple’s flat I learn more about how the support works in practice. Their flat looks like any other one bedroom apartment; however it belongs to the charity, which rents it to the couple for a modest rate. Pictures of Maor and Lilach decorate the walls, and books and ornaments sit the shelves.

When I arrive, much like any other married couple they were quarrelling with each other about who was going to serve the snacks.

“I have been married three years already,” Lilach says. “It is good.”

She had no idea Maor was going to propose to her. “It was a surprise. He asked me and quite soon after we went shopping with his mum for the rings,” she explains.

“We had to go to the rabbinate to say we wanted to get married, they asked us lots of questions and we waited and waited. Eventually they came out and gave us permission.”

Maor, who works at an electricity firm, a job the charity helped him to secure, was more shy about his proposal.

“She makes me happy. That is why I asked her.”

For him the best thing about being married is the independence.

“We are left alone but get help if we need it. We can cook together and spend time together. We get to go to hotels for Shabbat with my family.”

The couple have a designated social worker who checks in on them on a weekly basis.

Mrs Matan said: “I never thought Maor would be able to leave home, let alone get married. When I saw him under the chuppah I can’t explain to you how much he smiled. He was crying because he was so happy. That feeling was amazing.”

Despite being happy about his progress, it was not easy for Mrs Matan to let go when he told her he wanted to live independently.

“We are very protective as a family. We were frightened about him leaving us and I was scared that it was going to be hard for him.

“But the support and training they have given him and Lilach has been amazing.”

The success of the programme has prompted a similar Arab-Israeli organisation in Tamra, Lower Galilee, to request coaching from Ohel Sarah experts on how to advise its clients about married life.

For Ohel Sarah director, Malka Weinberg, the programme, which is partly funded by support from the charity’s UK arm, is just one of the innovative ways it supports people with disabilities to have a normal life.

“Everyone deserves to be loved, and for me it is that simple. If we can help facilitate that then we should. People with disabilities should have access to everything you or I have.

Mrs Weinberg says it is no longer typical for those with disabilities in Israel to be hidden from society.

“The more people with disabilities are seen in all sections of society the more people will learn to accept that it is normal. That is why we help them to get jobs in the community because there is a benefit to both the employee and the employer.”

At the charity’s headquarters there are employment centres, where adults with disabilities learn a variety of skills and, where possible, are matched up with jobs in the wider community.

The charity also has over 400 pupils across four schools, catering for children with disabilities from as young as six years old to 21.

Rachel Lebowitz, a teacher at Gesharim Girls School, which caters to pupils with a range of moderate disabilities, says: “Some of our students might not be able to achieve as much academically, but we can teach them skills that will help them in real world.”

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