CHARLOTTE, N.C. — She’s a shy Jewish woman from Charlotte. He’s a little boy, apparently African and Muslim, who was screaming aboard a transatlantic flight.

Their July 14 encounter between Brussels and New York made the eight-hour flight go easier for their fellow passengers. The virtually wordless connection — neither spoke the others’ language — also offered a lesson in compassion that has circulated widely online.

By her account, Rochel Groner, 33, is among the least likely people to make a public display. “I’m the type of person who would let somebody step on my foot for like a half- hour before I would say something,” she says.

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But about an hour into the flight, a return home after Groner and her husband Bentzion chaperoned teens to Israel, Groner heard sounds of distress behind them. Not cries from a baby. Not a bored teen.

“It was just kind of a shrieking without any words,” Groner says. “I recognized it right away as a child with special needs.”

Groner knew this not through training, although she used to teach elementary school, but from experience. She and her husband run Friendship Circle, which pairs teen volunteers with children with special needs such as autism. They also run ZABS Place, a Matthews thrift boutique that employs 28 young adults with “special talents.”

Social connections work a special magic, Bentzion Groner says. As a 16-year-old diagnosed with leukemia, he says, visits and gifts from friends “literally changed everything. I’m a big believer in that. It’s something that we as adults forget, that friendship could be a life changer.”

And so it was over the Atlantic aboard Brussels Airlines Flight 501.

As the wailing continued, tension mounted. Sleeping passengers woke up, startled by the noise. Others stirred, restless and increasingly irritated. The phone between the attendants’ station and flight deck kept beeping.

After 15 minutes, Rochel Groner could sit still no longer.

“I kind of felt this responsibility, like, I know what this is, but I’m not sure if anybody else knows what this is,” she says. “You cannot fly for eight hours with someone crying, you just can’t.”

People with autism, in particular, dislike enclosed spaces, Bentzion Groner said. They need to be in control of what’s around them. The boy’s identity and condition are unknown.

Groner got out of her seat. She asked for a pen from a flight attendant, grabbed a nausea bag and threaded her way down the aisle.

The boy looked to be about 8 and wore an African tunic and pants. He stood at his seat and sobbed, tears streaming down his face. His mother, who wore Muslim clothing, sat beside him.

Groner put her hand out. The boy looked at her, stopped his wailing, and took it. They walked into the aisle and plopped down together on the floor near an emergency exit.

“I put him in my lap and gave him a firm hug and I just started to rock him,” she says. His body had been tensed. Soon, “you could feel his muscles start to relax.”

Groner doodled on the nausea bag, tracing the outline of her hand as the boy watched, absorbed. Groner talked and smiled at him, and grabbed more nausea bags. At one point, the boy traced his own hand.

So it went for another hour or two. A travel pillow, some orange juice and cookies helped calm the child. The boy spun a fidget spinner and held it to his cheek, soothed by its rhythm. He even smiled and laughed.

The rest of the trip went smoothly, Groner said, although one crew member suggested to her husband that she didn’t need to intervene. Another attendant thanked her after the flight, she said, and so did several passengers.

Brussells Airlines confirmed the incident, saying the child “showed stressed behavior” during the flight’s meal service.

“Our Brussels Airlines crew did its utmost to comfort the child, when two passengers offered their assistance as they were specialized in comforting people showing symptoms of stress,” the airline said in a statement. “After some minutes, the symptoms disappeared. It goes without saying that our cabin crew remained during this entire period next to the child and the two passengers who were assisting and thanked the two passengers for their spontaneous support.”

The boy’s mother, in a few words of English, also thanked Groner. She did not get their names.

Groner believes God put her on the flight.

“Everybody’s been on a flight with a screaming child, and this is another way to defuse the situation,” she says. “Just ask: is there something I can do? Smile, don’t scowl.”

© 2017 The Charlotte Observer
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