Every Thursday, Bracha Bolton cooks and bakes food for Shabbat—but she never knows how many guests she’ll have. Anyone and everyone has an open invitation to the Boltons’ home in Meron. Hundreds of guests grace their Shabbat table every week. Their dining room is a distribution center for cakes and cookies and hot drinks at all hours. So many people come and go that their home resembles a train station during the day. At night, their dining room becomes a hostel for boys and men, while their living room becomes a giant dormitory for girls. All their bedrooms are given to couples, and when those are full, people sleep in tents on their lawn. Before Lag BaOmer, when thousands of people stream to Meron to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Bracha prepared over 60 pounds of challahs, rolls and cakes, and that was just part of the food the Boltons distributed from their home.

No, the Boltons don’t earn a living from their extraordinary hospitality. Yosef Chaim Bolton is a personal trainer, and works in maintenance and as a security guard. Bracha, a talented and ambitious woman, is busy raising their six children, two of whom need exceptional amounts of warmth and wisdom. She loves to bake, and is hoping that someday she’ll have the time and money to make a business of it.

The doctors said, “It would be a shame for you to take him home”

Yosef is from Jerusalem, and Bracha is from Kfar Chabad. After a short period of dating, they felt that they were meant for each other. Exactly a year after their wedding, Bracha gave birth to their firstborn son. The birth was easy, and everyone was ecstatic.

Then their perfect happiness was shattered. The day after his birth, the doctors told Bracha and Yosef that the baby had cerebral palsy. Their advice was to leave the baby in the hospital, or to arrange to transfer him to an institution. The prognosis was that the boy would never walk, never talk and never develop much. “It’s a shame for you to take on this burden. You’re a young couple, just starting out,” the doctors said. “Leave him and get on with your lives.”

Mendel was greeted with joy after his school became wheelchair-accessible
Mendel was greeted with joy after his school became wheelchair-accessible

The Boltons were crushed. But the moment they held their baby, they felt an overwhelming love for him. They decided together that this baby, with all his problems, had been sent to them by G‑d, and they were the ones who would raise him with love and go to any extremes to help him develop.

The Boltons named their son Menachem Mendel. Due to poor muscle tone, caused by cerebral palsy, it was hard for Mendel to eat and speak; each eye wandered in a different direction (a condition that was corrected surgically); and he was dependent on a wheelchair.

A year and eight months later, Bracha gave birth to another son, Rechavam, who was healthy. He developed quickly, soon overtaking Mendel in speaking, walking and other ways. It was hard to watch the disparity. When Mendel was three years old, his frustration at being unable to express himself became apparent. The Boltons sent him to a well-known, highly regarded professional who taught children with disabilities to read and write. At the age of three and a half, Mendel still didn’t know how to walk and talk, but he knew how to read and write. This gave him the chance to express himself, and the confidence that came from knowing that at least in reading he was ahead of his little brother.

Bracha and her husband traveled several times a week from Kfar Chabad to Jerusalem for physical therapy, hydrotherapy, speech therapy, homeopathic treatments and other treatments, trying every intervention to help Mendel develop.

In spite of the doctors’ negative prognosis, when he was four, Mendel began to walk and talk. The family was enormously excited. Even after Bracha gave birth to two healthy, beautiful girls, she and Yosef Chaim continued to give Mendel whatever help they could to enable him to lead a full life. Mendel participated in every family trip; he was never left out because of his limitations.

The Boltons had always felt a special connection to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron. They would go there to pray every Rosh Chodesh, often taking the children with them. They decided to move to Meron when Mendel was nine years old. They were enchanted by the spaciousness, the fresh air, and the holiness and serenity of the little village.

Mendel with his brother Shlomo Dovid Chai
Mendel with his brother Shlomo Dovid Chai

The hardest part of the move was Mendel’s transition to a new school. In his old school, he was much loved. The teachers taught the students to see the amazing child behind the disabilities and the wheelchair. In his new school he had to endure the stares of children who didn’t understand his challenges, and the staff were nervous about their new responsibility. But after several long months, Mendel participated in a party celebrating the class’s achievements in learning Talmud. The principal approached Bracha at the party to praise her son Mendel, who was beloved by all the students and the whole staff.

From a young age, Mendel was strongly attracted to the Rebbe. He would watch videos of the Rebbe for hours, paste stickers and pictures of the Rebbe all over, and read the Rebbe’s books. When he was hurt, he could be comforted only by looking at pictures of the Rebbe. When the family moved to Meron, he became very attached to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a renowned place of prayer. He insisted on being brought there every Shabbat. Even though it’s a brisk twenty-minute walk, Yosef Chaim attaches Mendel’s wheelchair to his gartel (belt) and off he goes, paying no mind to the weight he’s towing. Neither rain nor blistering sun can deter Mendel from his determination to go to the grave to pray.

The synagogue that Mendel’s school uses for morning services is not wheelchair-accessible, so every morning Bracha takes Mendel to Rabbi Shimon’s grave to pray, and the school bus picks Mendel up from there. The residents of Meron, the guards at the gravesite and the people who come to pray there all know and love Mendel.

A new challenge

Two years ago, Bracha gave birth to her fifth child, Shlomo Dovid Chai. At first Shlomo developed normally, but when he was a few months old, Bracha noticed that he wasn’t functioning well. Imagine the Boltons’ surprise when tests showed that little Shlomo, who looked exactly like Mendel, had the same problems. Bracha and Yosef felt a sense of déjà vu as they scrambled for tests and evaluations. The pain that had been deeply buried in their hearts for eleven years rose to the surface.

Coping through giving

The way the Boltons cope with their challenges is to give of themselves to others.

The Boltons’ house is always open to the many visitors to Meron who find themselves without a place to sleep or eat. You might think that a couple caring for two children with disabilities would have their hands full, but Bracha says that when giving to others, she and the children get more than they give. When they give to others, the house fills with joy.

“My children don’t know what a Shabbat without guests is. They love the experience and meeting new people every week. Once I wasn’t feeling well and decided to make a Shabbat just for us, but when my husband came home from the synagogue, he said that five children who had no place to eat would be joining us. Our kids were so happy. They scurried to organize a place for them. There was plenty of food, since I’m one of eleven children and don’t know how to cook in small amounts. When they came, I realized that this was an old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years. She and her husband had rented a bungalow in Meron and ordered food from a takeout place. The restaurant left the box with their food outside their bungalow, but by the time she and her husband arrived, someone had taken the food. When her husband saw Yosef Chaim in the synagogue, he asked, ‘Where are you staying?’ My husband told him, ‘We live in Meron now, and you’re invited to eat with us.’ It was one of the best Shabbats we’ve ever had. I could see that G‑d was making sure we’d always have guests and that we’d always have enough for them.”

Mendel Bolton on the day of his bar mitzvah
Mendel Bolton on the day of his bar mitzvah

When Lag BaOmer approaches, the Boltons’ freezers fill with food, tables are taken out of storage, and the whole house is made ready to welcome as many guests as possible, all at the Boltons’ personal expense.

I asked Bracha, “Isn’t all the tumult hard on you?”

“Hard? We wait for it every year. Lag BaOmer gives us stores of energy that last us all year.”

How do you finance all this hospitality? It must cost a fortune!

“The money comes through the blessings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. There can be no other explanation. There are times when I ask my husband, ‘How will we manage? Where will we get the money for more food?’ In the end, we always manage. We’ve understood for a long time that hospitality is the source of blessing in our home. I have no words to describe how happy it makes me. Hundreds of Jews of all different nationalities and ethnic groups, from all over the world, come and make blessings on the cookies I baked. There is such a sense of holiness that comes from the unity and love that fills our home. You’d have to come here to understand.”

Bracha hurries to add that she’s inviting anyone who’s interested to come to the Bolton home in Meron.

Do you have a message for parents of children with disabilities?

“The first stage of shock and grief, when your dream of having a healthy child is shattered, is a normal stage. But you’ve got to keep it brief. If you get stuck mourning the child that isn’t, it will be impossible to love your child and to help him develop. If you hide him at home and are embarrassed by him, he’ll be ashamed of who he is. The moment that you believe in your child, the moment you love him and accept him for who he is, even with all the difficulties his care entails, the child becomes self-confident and begins to progress. You have to give lots of love and hugs, and to accept the child, to tell yourself that this is the gift that G‑d gave you and that you’re going to do your best with him.”

The Bolton family. Their door is always open
The Bolton family. Their door is always open

A year ago, the Boltons celebrated Mendel’s bar mitzvah. This child, who the doctors said should be left in an institution because he would never walk or talk or succeed in anything, now walks, sits, speaks and functions. He’s putting on tefillin and is excited about his life, like any other child. It’s all due to the love and the enormous investments his parents made in him. At his bar mitzvah the family showed a film, “A Day in the Life of Mendel.” Everyone who watched it was crying when they saw how a child who has multiple disabilities lives a full life and carefully observes mitzvahs, from the moment he washes his hands in the morning until he says Shema at night, all with a smile.

Such children have highly elevated souls that were put into an imperfect body. “It’s not easy to raise such a child, but it’s an enormous merit,” says Bracha.