New York – A Chabad emissary to North Carolina defused a tense situation on a flight from Belgium to Newark last week, using her instincts to soothe an autistic boy who was creating a disturbance on a trans-Atlantic flight.
Rabbi Bentzion Groner and his wife Rochel, co-directors of The Friendship Circle in Charlotte, were on their way back from chaperoning a Birthright trip to Israel when they experienced a three hour stopover in Brussels last Friday.
Passengers were already feeling restless when they finally boarded their Newark-bound flight, but approximately an hour after takeoff stress levels rose when a young passenger began to have a meltdown.
“It was clear that it wasn’t a baby crying,” Mrs. Groner told VIN News. “It was obviously someone with special needs who was non-verbal. The noise continued and it was getting louder and you could feel the tension in the cabin was getting worse and worse.”
The Groners were seated by the bulkhead and could hear that the disturbance was coming from behind them but were unable to see what exactly was happening.
Summoning up her courage, Mrs. Groner, 33, walked down the aisle and saw two flight attendants kneeling next to a woman who did not appear to speak English in the aisle seat. Seated next to the window was a young boy who had tears streaming down his face.
“I’m pretty shy but I asked the flight attendants to move,” said Mrs. Groner. “I had no idea what to do so I just put out my hands. He stopped crying for a second and then he looked at me and put his hands out to me.”
Mrs. Groner walked with the boy back to the bulkhead where she sat down on the floor with him next to the aircraft door. Giving the boy a firm hug, Mrs. Groner rubbed his back and spoke softly to the boy, despite the obvious language barrier.
“Sometimes the words aren’t everything,” observed Mrs. Groner.
Using a pen borrowed from a flight attendant, the 33 year old Mrs. Groner began coloring on motion sickness bags with the boy, drawing pictures and tracing the outline of his hand. A fidget spinner borrowed from another passenger also helped keep the boy at peace.
“We seemed to connect in that way,” noted Mrs. Groner. “It might have been an hour or maybe even two hours that I was entertaining him, rocking him, hugging him and keeping him happy and calm, but it kept all of the other passengers happy and calm as well.”
Mrs. Groner, who has no official training in special education but works with the special needs population both at The Friendship Circle and its associated thrift shop, Zabs Place, noted that the rigid environment of an airplane can be extremely trying for someone with special needs.
“People need to understand that for better or for worse, we have more and more special needs children in the world and we need to support them and understand them and learn from them,” said Mrs. Groner. “Most importantly, we need not to judge the people who are tasked with raising them. They need our love and support, not our judgment.”
While Rabbi Groner’s Facebook posts sharing his wife’s deeds on the flight have been viewed by thousands, Mrs. Groner downplayed her actions.
“For me, this was just two hours of my life,” said Mrs. Groner. “For this boy’s mother, it is her entire life and it is exhausting.”