Cafe Connections: Disability, Faith, Family & “Us” Magazine


This is the story of how I met Pastor Gwen, the lady with the Lubavitch bookmark, and why I love NYC.

It began with my scheming to get my young adult son Noah, who has autism,  out of the apartment, even for a short while. My hook: we needed to buy a challah for Shabbat. Bypassing the market just across the street, I got Noah to the “Hot and Crusty” I had in mind, only to find that it was closed for renovations. I managed to convince him to come with me to Starbuck’s, and he chose the one inside Barnes and Noble. (Notice the theme here of s t r e t c h i n g outings with Noah using any and every ruse.)

Anyhow, we got to the cafe on the lower level, only to find every seat taken. By chance two women were getting ready to leave, or so it seemed. When I asked one of them if they were headed out, she responded with a smile and the kindest eyes I think I’ve ever seen. She noticed Noah right away, and something in her look told me that she had a sense of him, that she “got” him.

This woman, about my age and caucasian, was with a slightly younger black woman. Friends? Work colleagues? Companions? No idea. But there was a warm and generous vibe emanating from them that was just so lovely. Especially so on a freezing cold day.

As they got up to leave, I had Noah put down his coat and told him to get on line at the cafe. A minute or so later, he came back, his wallet in his outstretched hand. He wanted me to get on line instead. Off I went, but not before the kind-eyed lady looked at me and said, “I understand.” I smiled back.

I brought our order back to the table only to find, as I’d expected, that Noah hadn’t saved me a seat. Luckily, we were at one of the larger tables and there was a third seat. I asked the young woman next to Noah if she’d be ok moving over, and she was happy to oblige.

As Noah dug into his milk and sugar cookie, I grabbed a few of my “popcorn” readings from the shelves. I started with Us Magazine. As I sat back down, the kind-eyed lady (who was still in conversation and hadn’t left yet), came over and gave me a bookmark with a quote from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I thanked her and wished her “Shabbat Shalom.” She smiled widely and wished me “Shabbat Shalom” in return. Then she turned to her friend/colleague/companion as if to say, “What a world, isn’t it? You never know whom you’ll meet.”

As I turned my focus back to my trashy reading, a woman I’d seen on the escalator ahead of us on our way down to the café passed behind my chair. As she did, she looked over my shoulder and made a comment about my reading material. I turned toward her and said, “In this world, any excuse to escape the day’s news, I’ll grab!” She paused, smiling broadly, looked down at the magazine and offered her insights about one of the “who wears it best” photos. “OK,” I said, “let’s get serious.” So I turned back to a page with photos of Rita Ora in various outfits, and we had fun deciding which getups were thumbs up or down. (For the record, we both hated the pajamas and high heels, and the feather thing that made Ora look like an old Pamela Anderson.)

Somehow, we got from that to my asking what she’d been looking for, since she had a small stack of magazines with her. She showed me some small business publications, and I asked if she had a business of her own. Turns out she’s a real estate broker and a pastor. Well, that led to a discussion about various pastors (we both like William Barber) and to my suggesting she might really appreciate Darren Walker, who’s not a pastor, but brings a real faith perspective to his philanthropic work, and is willing to speak truth to his own power. She and Darren also seem to have an Abyssinian connection of some sort in common (perhaps related to her ordination?).

It was such fun, and so comfortable to be in conversation with this woman. After what must have been twenty minutes of chit chat, I had to go, since Noah had his coat and cookie monster hat already on. “I’m Pastor Gwen,” she said. I told her my name and that I enjoyed our chat. I mentioned that it was a special treat, since we come from different faith traditions, and that I had to go get a challah for Shabbat. “That starts at sunrise, right?” she said. “Sunset, actually, but I just focus on when everyone’s home, since I assume God isn’t watching the clock.”

Just a snippet of a day, but I loved the bookended moments of a woman who might be a kind of Jewish emissary handing out inspirational bookmarks, to a real estate-selling African-American pastor who totally got into critiquing fashion with me. BTW, it was Pastor Gwen who pointed out that Regina King looks as good as she does because she doesn’t have kids (is that even true?) and that she herself has three. “Me too,” I said, “and every time I dis my body, my husband reminds me of that.” Her younger daughter (19) was with her in the café, along with her husband, who uses a cane and looks to have some kind of neuromuscular disorder, given his gait. Her other kids are 30 and 26. Mine, I shared, are 19, 23, and 25.

I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the overlap. She and I were likely close in age, she has three kids, and she has at least one obviously disabled family member. Maybe that made it easier to bond over something totally silly. ‘Cause there’s just too much serious in our midst, too much of the time…

Nina Mogilnik’s professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina serves on the board of Birch Family Services, an organization dedicated to educating and supporting into adulthood individuals with a range of developmental disabilities. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s and her son’s autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week.  She was recently invited to blog for The Times of Israel and has been contributing her take on life and current events.  Nina’s proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids (human and canine) in New York City.