Over the past 36 years, since my son Yossi became blind and deaf at the age of 11 months following a faulty vaccine and the ensuing establishment in 1990 of Shalva – The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel, I have had considerable time and opportunity to observe the world of special needs and its amazing personal interactions. What has become abundantly clear is that there is inherent goodness in a myriad of extraordinary human beings who, by choice, dedicate themselves to making a positive impact on the lives of individuals with disabilities.

Parents of children with special needs are not there by choice, but so often they overcome their hurdles and become incredibly sensitive not only to their children but also to everyone around them. Society’s cultural and ethnic standards and walls of division fall away, enabling one to see beyond one’s own private identity and to recognize clearly the inner beauty of others, thereby creating moving relationships.

This was vividly evident several years ago when Gerry Casey, a senior officer in the United Nations International Peace Corps, arrived at Shalva and stepped out of his Hummer in a khaki uniform in full military regalia, seeking help for his two-year-old daughter Rachel, who has Down syndrome.

Rachel and her devoutly Catholic parents, Gerry and Theresa, spent an invaluable year in Shalva’s Me & My Mommy early intervention program and became part of the Shalva family.

The Caseys were so overwhelmed by their new friendships and eye-opening experiences that before they returned to their native Ireland they vowed to invite their friends in the international and diplomatic communities from neighboring countries to join in a farewell party at Shalva and share a glimpse of the world they had discovered.

Israeli security authorities said it couldn’t be done, but Gerry’s associates in fact arrived from all over Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, overcoming significant obstacles for the love of Rachel – and all in the presence of President Shimon Peres.

Several weeks ago, this lesson was once again driven home when I received an email from Daniel Mandell, a young man who had become a dear friend of my son Yossi. “I am in Thailand,” wrote Daniel, “and if you send me Yossi, I can help him realize his longtime dream of riding an elephant. Please send him.”

Now, this is a dream that Yossi and I spoke of often, but given that Yossi is now also unable to walk and is confined to a wheelchair, I could not imagine how to make it happen. But I called another dear friend of Yossi’s, Avi Cashman, and asked him if he was game. With disbelief but without delay, Avi said, “For Yossi, absolutely.”

A few days later, Avi left his young wife and flew with Yossi to Bangkok and on to the island of Ko Samui, where they not only realized Yossi’s dream but also enjoyed 10 days of intense activities that any traveler would be proud of. As always, Yossi kept a blog of his activities that we eagerly awaited each day.

Upon their return, when I asked Avi and Daniel how they managed such a grueling trek and why they had undertaken it, the answer was immediate: “For the love of Yossi. He is real, and his joy is contagious.”

Clearly, when the walls come down, one can see more clearly.

For the coming seven days, we move out of the secure confines of the walls of our homes into our succa, a thatched hut, which by definition must be a temporary dwelling, allowing for walls that are low, flimsy and even with gaps, while the roof allows us to see the stars.

Yet it is this week that is specifically referred to as “the time of our rejoicing,” for when the walls come down, we have the capacity to see beyond them and to reflect on the blessings that God gives each of us and to appreciate the basics in life and recognize the intrinsic goodness in our fellow man.

May our prayer “Spread over us Your succa of peace” be fulfilled throughout the year, even when the physical walls are back up.

The writer is the founder and director of Shalva – The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel.


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