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Community rallies to give man his freedom
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Community rallies to give man his freedom

The generosity of the local Jewish community has freed an East Brunswick man from “jail” after almost four years.

Steve Weinraub’s imprisonment, however, did not involve cells or guards, but rather his physical disability, which prevented the 31-year-old from leaving his home without assistance.

Weinraub has been confined to a wheelchair since birth because he suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a non-fatal form of muscular dystrophy.

In 2008, the computer mechanism broke on the 1997 van he had been using for 10 years. Unfortunately, because of the van’s age, the only company making the damaged mechanism — which allows the van to be operated by touchpad — would not replace it; a new van would need to be purchased in order for the device to be installed. Weinraub also requires hand controls that provide “zero assistance steering” so the wheel can be turned without resistance.

Weinraub contacted the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which referred him to the 98-year-old Jewish Social Service Committee of New Brunswick and Highland Park, Inc. The nonprofit organization helps Jewish individuals in Middlesex County who are referred by the federation, rabbis, or the Jewish Family and Vocational Service of Middlesex County.

The committee immediately launched a drive to buy Weinraub a replacement vehicle, providing $10,000 to jumpstart the effort. In November, the JSSC presented Weinraub with a new $135,000 van.

“I can’t thank them enough,” Weinraub told NJJN. “If it wasn’t for them it probably would have been another four years before I got my van. It sort of feels like being let out of jail.

“I didn’t have any freedom except moving around the house,” he said. “It was terribly restrictive and depressing. The times I got out were few and far between.”

Weinraub, who uses a motorized wheelchair, lives with his parents, Eric and Marylou, in a wheelchair-accessible ranch house. The van, whose doors open by pushing a button, also has a ramp to make it accessible.

The hydraulics system that operates the computer sits in a box on the floor on the driver’s side. A bolt under the driver’s seat locks Weinraub in place in case of an accident.

Before the new van arrived, Weinraub said, he felt like a burden to his family members. “My mom would have to leave work early to drive me to work or wherever, or friends of mine would have to come here and then drive me,” he said. “It was a huge inconvenience to have to be driven everywhere and not have the freedom to go where I want to go.”

Weinraub works in the after-school program at Robert Frost Elementary School in East Brunswick, assisting students with homework and other activities.

But he said he doesn’t think he will continue there much longer. Now that he can drive himself and does not have to rely on his mother, he hopes instead to find a full-time job. “This will be a big help to her as well as me,” he said.

Weinraub attended public schools and was assisted by an aide. When he was in eighth grade, however, he asked that the service be discontinued because the aide “was cramping my style.”

Instead, he relied on friends and went on to be an honors student at East Brunswick High School, where he was elected president of both his junior and senior class. He attended Rutgers University for two years, but had to drop out because of problems with his van. He said he may return to college and eventually become an elementary school teacher.

JSSC treasurer Lee Livingston said the organization bought the new van for Weinraub because “this is what we do.”

“We do small things and we do big things,” he said. “We put food on people’s tables or pay people’s utility bills when they can’t. With a major thing like Steven’s van, we try and pull the whole community together.”

The fund-raising drive for the all-volunteer committee was handled by Rachel Silverstein. For the most part, regular JSSC donors were asked to increase their support in order to raise the money to buy the van.

Gerrie Bamira, executive director of the Middlesex federation, which funds the committee, said that when a member of the community reaches out to her organization for help, “we are fortunate to have partner agencies such as JSSC to respond with compassion and purpose.”

Weinraub took Silverstein and Livingston for a ride in his new vehicle after it was delivered.

“The van changed Steven’s life, and this community changed Steven’s life,” said Livingston. “When Rachel and I got that first ride in the van, we just looked over at Steven and saw he had a life again….”

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