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A Visit to Dr. Suss Stables 

By Sandy Eller

Moving from one community to another is one of those experiences that takes some getting used to.  

But when Yossi and Leah Lowenstein moved from Woodmere, New York to Jackson, New Jersey, the transition was a little more complicated than usual. In addition to figuring out the best locations for their belongings and identifying the nearest kosher supermarket, they also had to fix up their newly acquired barn, learn about field maintenance, and learn to mend fences.

The Lowensteins, proprietors of Dr. Suss Stables, live on a 25-acre farm approximately six miles west of the heart of Lakewood.  They are the parents of two little girls – four-year-old Lily and two-year-old Sarah – and also share their lives with more than ten horses, more than a dozen rabbits, a handful of chickens, a large rooster, three dogs, three Nigerian goats, and three ducks named Curly, Larry, and Moe.

A Match Made in Heaven

While Yossi is originally from Crown Heights and Leah hails from Baltimore, there is no doubt that they were cut from the same piece of burlap. Yossi’s childhood visits to his maternal relatives in Huntsville, Texas imbued him with a love of farming, those horizons broadening further as time went by.  Spending several years on a Gush Etzion yishuv while working with special needs children, Yossi also found himself shepherding a flock of approximately 50 goats in his spare time, an experience he found to be incredibly peaceful.  And growing up as a city girl, Leah’s love of the outdoors had her dreaming of running a special needs program on a farm.

Both Yossi and Leah were working for different agencies serving the special needs community in New York when they met at a training program.  They got married in 2014, and in time, the seed that grew into Dr. Suss sprouted.

“We were talking with someone about how cool it would be to do a farm catering to the typical population as well as those with special needs and maybe even create jobs for special needs people,” Yossi told The Jewish Echo.  “They said if we were serious, they could help us look into it.”

While others in their social circles were going house hunting, the Lowensteins were looking at farms, buying their Grawtown Road property in 2018.  The parcel had a barn, paddocks, sheds, ample space for animals, and acres and acres of woods. The location was ideal, close enough to serve Lakewood’s exploding Jewish community, with schools and stores a relatively short drive away.  

“It was quite an adjustment, although once we went into Lakewood and saw all the traffic, we felt we weren’t too far from home anymore,” recalled Yossi. “There was a lot of work to be done.  We had to fix the fencing and certain sheds had to be taken down while others had to be repaired. We fixed up the barn and learned about taking care of the fields and the waters.” 

Still, Yossi admitted that they are pioneers in their area which is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of nearby Lakewood. There is no eruv and walking to the closest shul is an hour-long journey that involves navigating roads that were never intended for pedestrians.  A new shul opening up “on the corner,” sounds like it would be just a hop, skip and a jump away, but in reality, it will still be a solid 20-minute walk for the Lowensteins.

Saddling Up

While Leah had always loved the outdoors and had always wanted a dog, her family had their reservations about her taking to the farm life, given that she actually was actually afraid of animals.  She acknowledged being panic stricken on first trip with Yossi to get horses to occupy their newly acquired paddocks.

“We walked into this field with about 30 horses and there were horses everywhere,” recalled Leah.  “Horses can feel your emotions and I was terrified. I hid behind my husband and made sure he didn’t move an inch without me.”

It did take time for the Lowensteins to learn how to run their farm.  The day starts at approximately six in the morning, and there are plenty of jobs to be done from sun up to sun down. Breaking those responsibilities down into different consecutive steps makes them well suited to both typical kids as well as those with special needs, who can gain tremendous benefits from spending time on the farm, explained Yossi.  

“They come here and they don’t need to follow the same social rules as in other scenarios,” said Yossi.  “Here they can run for 20 feet and you don’t have to stop them from running out into the street. If someone is screaming you don’t have to try to quiet them down like you would need to do in a crowded store.”

According to Yossi, those with special needs typically interact well with the animals, the non-verbal communication allowing for a unique kind of give and take.

“We would see this when we went on trips with kids before we came out here,” noted Yossi.  “Just the groundwork before you even get on a horse – feeding them and all of the other steps -is very valuable and we have even seen that the military uses equine therapy for people with PTSD.”

A family and sensory-friendly horse farm, Dr. Suss opened to the public in September 2018, with 1,000 visitors flocking to Jackson on Chol Hamoed Succos to enjoy pony rides, riding lessons, a horse show, a petting zoo, inflatables, and refreshments. In addition to offering horse boarding, the Lowenstein’s year-round programming benefits visitors of all types and includes horseback riding lessons, a Sunday petting zoo, hayrides, one on one sensory hours, and private events.  Separate four week long farm clubs for boys on Friday afternoons and for girls on Sunday mornings run during the cooler weather, giving kids ages five to fifteen an opportunity to get away from it all while they enjoy grooming, riding, farm work, fishing, and hiking through the property’s wooded trails.  

Lakewood resident Etty Youlus found Dr. Suss to be very hands on and kid-friendly when she visited with her two girls, ages eight and ten.  The individualized attention made all the difference in the world when child guides helped her daughters saddle up for the very first time, albeit with some reservations. 

“They were very patient and understanding of my daughter’s fear of pony riding,” said Youlus. “They had two people doing it with her and reassuring her throughout.”

Overalls, Tzitzis and Payos, Oh My!

Running a farm can bring with it some interesting halachic issues that Old McDonald never had to face.  While it is relatively simple to remember that we are obligated to feed our animals before sitting down to our own dinners, Pesach brings with it a full set of complications, given that the Lowenstein’s horses, which range in age from five to 26- years- old, subsist on a diet of grain and hay.  The horses are sold to a non-Jew who is responsible for feeding them over the entire Yom Tov, and while on Yom Kippur, if the person tasked with feeding the horses doesn’t come in, the Lowensteins would be required to feed them, things are different on Pesach.

“You can’t handle the chametz so you just can’t do it,” said Yossi.

Similarly, if the horses are being used on Chol Hamoed, it is the non-Jewish owner who would be receiving any profits.  Skirting that particular problem, the Lowensteins opened for business on Chol Hamoed Pesach last year, but didn’t offer their guests any horse related activities.

Leah recalled one time when they were going away for Shabbos and they got a call that one of the horses was sick, prompting them to turn around and head back home to take care of the ailing equine.  There have been numerous other Shabbos illnesses and even a Yom Kippur bout of sand colic, a gastro-intestinal problem alleviated only through surgery or by keeping the horse walking until the issue clears – a process that can take 24 hours.

“They just want to roll on the ground because their stomach hurts but you can’t let them,” said Leah.  “You have to keep walking with them. The horse gets tired and you get tired and you have to have someone else come and keep walking with them if you want the horse to be okay.”

In other instances, typical mishaps have mushroomed into larger events because of nothing more than the simple matter of timing.  There was the very memorable event just a few weeks ago when the Lowenstein’s typically docile and well- mannered goats Cookies, Cream, and Fudge, who had all been trained to walk independently into the barn, decided to mutiny on an Erev Shabbos.  Leah, in her seventh month of pregnancy, and the family dogs did their best to herd the wayward goats up, but the four footed miscreants had no interest in cooperating. Calling in the cavalry, Leah caught Yossi on his cell phone at the supermarket, telling him to leave his cart behind and to come help her corral the mischievous goats.

“They usually follow each other, but that day they all went in opposite directions,” said Leah.  “We looked like crazies running around, trying to catch them. The kids were sitting on the porch laughing.”

One other Erev Shabbos, the Lowenstein’s tractor got stuck in the mud just hours before candle lighting and concerted efforts pulling with a rented truck were proving beyond futile. After two hours of attempting to rescue the John Deer 4300 on his own and losing his wedding ring in the process, Yossi called a friend who saved the day using a heavy duty truck.

“We didn’t think we were ever going to get it out,” said Leah.  “Somehow, these things always happen right before Shabbos.”

More Than Just a Farm…

What’s it like to grow up on a farm?

Lily and Sarah both love going out on the horses, though Yossi doubts they realize how lucky they are to have an opportunity that most other children only dream of.  They love the bucolic lifestyle, and Yossi recounted laughingly that some days it seems as if the only animals they want to see are those that don’t currently live on the farm.  He described Leah as “the backbone of Dr. Suss Stables,” which has already hosted camps and school groups in the year and a half it has been open, in addition to many, many private visitors. 

While Yossi is thrilled with the opportunity to provide all children with the opportunity to spend time communing with nature, his years of experience with the special needs population have him hoping that Dr. Suss Stables will be a much needed outlet that will enrich their lives in numerous ways.  Being able to offer jobs to those with special needs is extremely meaningful to both Yossi and Leah.

“We think we are being so nice when we buy someone with special needs a cup of coffee, but what are our expectations for them – that when they get to a certain age they get to go to shul and then go home?” mused Yossi.  “Giving them a job and the ability to earn some money, it is so much more meaningful than handing them a puzzle to do. Besides farming, we can create opportunities for them and really value them as people who have so much to offer.”

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients.  She can be contacted at sandyeller1@gmail.com.

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