“Theresa Orzechowski prayed. She prayed for a little girl disabled as she herself had been as a child, a little girl named Nelli abandoned in a hospital in Manhatan. Theresa’s lips did not move. God always knew what was in her heart, she believed, so she fell silent and let God listen”. (NY Times reporter, Ralph Blumenthal writing in Family Circle Magazine in an article entitled “The Rabbi, the Bishop and Mrs. Orzechowski”.)
I was an admirer of Terry, a staunch and activist Catholic. My Temple had given her our Humanitarian Award for her tireless work in the community on behalf of homeless and battered women. One day she suddenly appeared in my study in tears, because the New York Diosese had placed obstacles in her way to adopt a very special girl named Nelli. Terrry and her husband had gone to see her in the NY Catholic Sisters of Charity Foundling Hospital in Manhattan three months before. Nelli had languished there since infancy waiting in vain for someone to adopt her.
She was born with spina bifida as well as a clubbed foot, several fused toes and fingers, a heart murmur, fluid in her skull and disfiguring lesions around her mouth. When Nelli was not quite three her Jewish parents had decided to move to Israel and give her up for adoption with a strange proviso. They wanted Nelli to be placed in a Jewish home except not in a home of Chassidic Jews. The inference was that they disapproved of that particular sect.
Terri and Ken always dreamed of having a child but had not been successfull in 23 years of marriage. Nelli was described in NY State’s “Blue Book” for adoption as charming and active, although delayed in learning from all of her hospitalizations, The Book said Nelli would thrive in a loving family where she would get greater stimulation. Terry, like little Nelli was born with congenital defects: clubfeet, dislocated hips and a dislocated hip socket which resulted in eighteen operations beginning when she was three. In 1986 she was diagnosed with breast cancer followed by a lumpectomy and radiation.She told a friend: “Look-you can make cancer your enemy or your friend. It has let me face death. Now I understand how precious time is. Most people don’t have an opportunity to see that.”
One day Terry and Ken were looking through the official NY State adoption Blue Book and they saw Nelli, the little girl with the disfigurement in her face, and just then little Nelli had been freed by her Jewish parents for adoption. They went to the Catholic Foundling Hospital in Manhattan and they were allowed to spend some precious time to begin bonding with little Nelli. Nelli was using a walker and galloped ahead of Terry and Ken and when she tripped and fell they came to her aid but little Nelli shouted, “Don’t help me!” and she got up by herself. When they had to leave Nelli asked plaintively: “Are you coming back?”
But sadly Terry and Ken never saw little Nelli again. Her Bishop advocated for her and she went before the NY State Supreme Court represented by a lawyer who battled for the homeless and the disadvantaged while the Foundling Hospital had a team of powerful attorneys. I held her hand as she approached the Judge with a noticable limp.The court spectators became very silent as the sight of this brave little figure. It was to no avail and her arguments fell on deaf ears.
Despite Terrry’s heroic efforts battling the Church’s hierarchy and her solemn promise to raise Nelli in the Jewish faith, Nelli was given to Jewish parents and shockingly, we heard later that Nelli succumbed to Infant Death Syndrome while under the care of a baby sitter. Terri always believed in her heart that Nelli would have lived if she had watched over her. Fortunately a social worker heard about their plight and found another handicapped girl for them to adopt.
Terry died of breast cancer before she had a chance to see her little child grow up and Ken is left caring for her on his own. I will always remember Terry’s courage in the face of adversity. Remarkably, after she was unable to adopt Nelli, Terry called me and said she wanted to pray for Nelli’s future in the synagogue. Terry said to me afterward, “Well, Rabbi, at least we’ve adopted each other.”
What I believe as a Rabbi is that the heart of true religion is human decency, and it far surpasses parochial lines and religious differences. In the words of my favorite phrase from Jewish tradition : “God wants heart.”