Editor's Notes: Realizing a challenging dream

SHALVA is building a world-class center for challenged children in Jerusalem.

November 1, 2012 21:58
Rabbi Kalman Samuels and son Yossi

Rabbi Kalman Samuels and son 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Rabbi Kalman Samuels looks like a modern-day Herzl as he talks with a mixture of passion and modesty about the new complex for children with special needs he is building in the heart of Jerusalem.

“Let me tell you, it’s beyond me,” he says. “It’s not something I would ever have dreamed of. Little Kerry Samuels didn’t believe he’d ever be doing this kind of thing! A lawyer, a judge maybe, but this?” The Canadian-born Samuels is the director of SHALVA, the Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel, a nonprofit organization he started with his wife, Malki, in 1990.

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Interviewed at the SHALVA Children’s Center, Beit Nachshon, in the capital’s Har Nof neighborhood, his eyes sparkle as recalls realizing Malki’s dream.

“Six years ago, the City of Jerusalem offered us a piece of land right next to the Shaare Zedek Medical Center to build a new complex,” he says. “At first, I said I already had my hands full. But then I saw the land, and now we’re forging ahead. I was there with a guest yesterday, and it’s mind-boggling.

“This is for the State of Israel a world-class center. There’s bigger hospitals, there’s bigger universities, but there’s little like it in the field of special ed.”

The 200,000-square foot (1,850-square meter) complex and adjacent park accessible to those with disabilities, which are being built on seven acres (3.65 hectares) of prime property at a cost of $46 million, are set to open in “two years and a bit of change,” Samuels says, explaining that they have faced some bureaucratic hurdles.

Samuels says he has raised $34m. already, and he has faith that the rest will come.

“We’re building a semi- Olympic therapy pool, a full-size gym and auditorium, a floor for training centers,” he says. “People will come from all over the world to study, to learn, to be here.”

He notes that SHALVA once hosted five delegates from “a mega church in Virginia” who returned home to build a $16m. respite center.

“It’s a great thing for Israel. You have 10,000 people who pray there every weekend, and they give us full credit that they’re based on our model,” he says.

Samuels happily gives a guided tour of Beit Nachshon (named after Nachshon Wachsman), which is a seemingly endless series of rooms, one on top of the other. A total of 450 children currently receive care in the center.

After visiting a swimming pool with mothers and their babies, an exercise class filled with mothers and infants, and several rooms in which children of all ages are receiving a variety of therapies, he enters a small room in which Yossi Samuels is sitting with a caregiver.

“This is my son Yossi,” he declares proudly, after kissing his smiling son and holding his hand.

Samuels communicates with Yossi, 36, who is blind and deaf, by finger-spelling Hebrew letters on the palm of his hand, also serving as his interpreter to the outside world.

Yossi, upon learning that I am the editor of The Jerusalem Post, asks immediately: “Do you think Romney has a chance?” “I don’t know,” I answer. “It seems to be a close race.”

After chatting for a few minutes, Yossi and I exchange cards before parting.

Samuels says that Yossi – his and Malki’s second of seven children – was born a healthy child in Israel, but at 11 months, due to complications from a faulty vaccine he received in 1977, he began losing his sight and hearing.

“Yossi was taken to the public health center in Jerusalem for a routine DPT vaccination against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, and sorry to say, he had a reaction,” Samuels says. “Later we found out that many others did too. It was so bad they actually canceled the vaccine for four months until a new batch was brought in. Our life got flipped on its head, and he ultimately became blind and his hearing began to go downhill.”

The family moved to New York for Yossi, whom they sent to the famous Lighthouse for the Blind. With four children already and two more born in New York, life was tough and friends suggested placing Yossi in an institution.

“The bottom line was that it was very trying. Malki as a young mother would cry a lot and say, ‘G-d, if you ever decide to help my Yossi, I’ll take it upon myself to help other people.’” Born in 1951, Samuels was raised in a secular family in Vancouver.

“I grew up traditional; my father made Kiddush. It wasn’t that I didn’t know anything, but Israel was certainly not on my agenda,” he says. “I came here at the age of 18 between first and second years of university for two weeks during a European tour, because my mother asked me to come. And for reasons that until today I can’t explain, I kept putting my return off by another week.

“I wound up studying with Rabbi Chaim Brovender at a yeshiva. I became more and more interested. So I studied and became a rabbi, and married Malki.”

After four-and-a-half years in New York with Yossi, the family returned to Israel, where Kalman began working for the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation.

“They had an office in Rehavia, and I set up their computer system. I worked for them for 17 years,” he says.

Yossi was enrolled in a school for the deaf, where, Samuels says, “miracle of miracles, a deaf woman who taught in the school managed to teach him how to finger-spell, just like Helen Keller. All of a sudden, he lit up and he got it. She taught him the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Another speech therapist taught him how to speak Hebrew, and slowly he began to talk.

“The late president [Chaim] Herzog visited Yossi, there were stories in the papers, Ilana Dayan did a segment on Uvda, and things started to pick up.”

As their lives improved, his wife remembered her dream.

“Malki turned to me and said, ‘It’s payback time. I made a promise, I want to help other kids, and I want you to help me.’” While praying for his ailing father in a Vancouver synagogue, Samuels confided in a wealthy associate who was saying Kaddish for his own mother.

“I got the guts up to share the dream,” Samuels says. “He agreed to give me $50,000 to realize Malki’s dream. We called it SHALVA, meaning peace of mind, but it’s also an acronym for Shihrur Lemishpaha U’leyeled Ha’mugbal [“Freeing the family and the disabled child”] and Malki began doing her stuff like a bulldozer.”

He laughs. “My wife said, ‘Jump,’ and I said, ‘How high?’” They started with an after-school program for 10 children in a small duplex in Jerusalem.

“The children would come to us after school and we would keep them the whole day until 6 p.m. We would take care of them, and give them therapy and food to allow their parents and siblings that extra time to live a normal life.

“We were shocked. It grew beyond our wildest expectations, and people would bang on my door to get their children in. We never charged from day one.”

In the mid-1990s, SHALVA purchased a larger building, in Har Nof, with the help of the same Vancouver donor.

Among the various programs on offer around the clock are speech, occupational and physical therapy.

“We have 150 children every day after school in a variety of programs that teach them life skills. Every night of the week, about 20 kids sleep over, and this provides relief to their families for two days.

“The ‘Me and My Mommy’ program has 15 mothers and their babies with mental disabilities every day who come from all over the country once a week for five hours.

“We have therapists helping these 75 mothers coming each week, a daily program for 40 kids with Down syndrome, 33 kids coming over the weekend and a summer camp for 150 kids. And we have now built a second center in Alon Shvut.”

Samuels says SHALVA has “hundreds of kids” on its waiting list, which is why it is building the new center.

“We have a $4m. budget, $1.1m. of which comes from the government and the rest I have to raise.

“All of our services are free, thanks to funding from the government and our donors. We hire mainly special-education experts, but we also have about 200 volunteers.”

Samuels smiles. “I always say that if I had all that when Yossi was growing up, I’d probably be sane today,” he quips.

For more information about SHALVA, please visit www.shalva.org.

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