Yaakov Portnoy stood outside his East Meadow house on Glenmore Avenue with his five children, their friends and some neighbors on June 25. All were waiting for a surprise that was set to arrive in honor of Jeremy Portnoy’s 7th birthday eight days earlier.
Then came the sound of sirens and horns honking, signaling what has become a staple for community celebrations throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which has ushered in an era of socially distant celebrations.
But what set this car parade apart from others was the first car in the lineup: a black Nissan GT-R with a bat insignia emblazoned on the side that made it resemble the Batmobile. It stopped in front of the Portnoy house and Batman’s sidekick, Robin, got out and handed Jeremy a Dunkin’ Donuts box.
After that, more exotic and expensive cars continued driving along Glenmore, including a red convertible adorned with a large decal reading “Happy Birthday” in rainbow, bubble letters.
The man in the Robin costume was Josh Aryeh, 33, of Lawrence, who founded the nonprofit Smiles Through Cars in July 2018. Since then he has visited hundreds of children each month who are either terminally ill or recovering from illness or injury.
“The whole point is to make them forget about their illness for a while,” Aryeh said, “and feel like a kid again.”
Yaakov Portnoy had been planning the visit since Jeremy came home from the intensive care unit of Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens on Oct. 13. Three days earlier, the 6-year-old was sitting on the sidewalk outside his grandparents’ house in Kew Gardens, Queens, when a 35-year-old homeless man approached him and, unprovoked, slammed Jeremy’s head on the concrete, according to police reports.
The attack left Jeremy with a brain hemorrhage, facial contusions, two skull fractures and a collapsed lung.
The suspect, Laurence Gendreau, was caught on surveillance video fleeing the scene before he was arrested. He was arraigned on Oct. 25 in Queens Supreme Court, where Judge Peter Vallone ordered a psychiatric evaluation. He is still awaiting trial, and his next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 13.
Yaakov said that Jeremy was almost completely recovered, and that most of his injuries had healed. As his 7th birthday approached, his father reached out to Aryeh and coordinated the car parade and the superhero visit.
For Aryeh, this visit was more personal. He and Portnoy both volunteered for an ambulance service in Queens when Portnoy lived in Kew Gardens and Aryeh lived in Far Rockaway. “What happened to his son was just devastating,” Aryeh said.
In 2008, Aryeh took an 8-year-old girl for a ride in a rented Lamborghini convertible. She had been diagnosed with cancer when she was 4, and had endured numerous surgeries and treatments.
Aryeh recalled coming back from the ride to find the girl’s mother in tears. “She said it was the first time she saw her daughter smile since the diagnosis,” he recounted.
That was the first of many visits Aryeh organized over the next decade before creating Smiles Through Cars. “A one-time thing became my greatest passion in life,” he said.
Aryeh said he was inspired by Lenny Robinson, a Maryland man who began dressing as Batman and visiting children in hospitals across his home state and the Washington, D.C., area, in 2007. Aryeh combined that idea with an interest of his own. “I always loved exotic cars,” he said, “and although I didn’t own any growing up, I had a lot of friends who did, and let me borrow them. I thought sick kids would like riding in exotic cars, too.”
He began renting cars and dropping in at hospitals across Long Island to visit and give toys to children with cancer or other illnesses. And in 2014 he bought his “Batmobile” the GT-R, which sells for more than $100,000 brand new.
Now, Smiles Through Cars has a collection of more than 50 cars and roughly a dozen regular volunteers who drive them. Aryeh makes most of his visits on request and, along with his volunteers, dresses up as any superhero, Disney princess or cartoon character a child would like to meet.
Aryeh has had to alter how the nonprofit operates amid the pandemic to meet state safety guidelines: The volunteers could no longer go inside hospitals, and mostly make house visits. “But there’s always a way to make people happy,” he said.
With New York now more than halfway to completely reopening, Aryeh is allowing guests to sit inside his cars again, and take photos in person.
Photos and videos from the events can be seen on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, under the account name Batman Real Account. The Instagram account has more than 100,000 followers.