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(photo credit: Meredith Price)
'I see my work as a gift," says Chaim Efraim, setting a tiny wooden squirrel upright on the table. "There are two aspects involved. One as a social worker helping handicapped people, and the other as a toy maker."
Perhaps not what one would describe as a modern-day Geppetto, Efraim nevertheless oversees the carving, painting and packaging of anthroposophic wooden toys in Kfar Hassidim, a small village 14 kilometers from Haifa.
Born in northern Israel in 1951, Efraim says it was his spiritual refusal to be born outside Israel that prompted his parents' move from a small Jewish village in southwest India. But despite having Indian roots and growing up in a predominantly Indian community, Efraim says he has always had a magnetic relationship to Israel, and feels deeply connected to the land here.
The second child of five, Efraim studied chemical engineering in high school. But after completing his army service, he decided to leave mathematics and science behind, opting instead to fulfill his dream of creating a kibbutz.
"After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, in which a few of my friends who were supposed to found the kibbutz with me were killed, I needed a new direction," says Efraim. "I needed to start over."
But studying philosophy in Jerusalem still didn't provide the answers he was seeking. It was in the small community of Harduf, founded upon the spiritual science of anthroposophy, that Efraim at last found his place.
According to the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, "Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge to guide the spirit of the human being to the spiritual in the universe."
Today, Waldorf schools based upon Steiner's philosophy exist all over the world and focus on educating children in a balanced way to develop their spirit, mind and body. Anthroposophic toys are those made of natural elements designed to inspire artistic creativity and imaginative thought.
"In 1985, after five years in Harduf as one of the founders, I was looking for something to 'do' instead of just thinking about my philosophy," says Efraim, who with his wife, Michal, and their first child moved to a small community outside Belfast for the express purpose of joining a small, 20-something, experimental community.
"It was a largely Jewish village started by Dr. Carol Konig in which disabled people live with normally-functioning adults," he says. "Through therapy, the disabled are able to improve their abilities and lead more fulfilling lives. The experiment was very successful, and today many communities like this exist all over the world."
After two years in northern Ireland, Efraim and his family returned to Israel and lived in a similar village outside Beersheba.
"I was asked to start a workshop, and I decided to use wood," says Efraim. "I wanted to help the handicapped people there make something functional and beautiful, so we began making wooden boxes that can be used in the kitchen or for toys."
In 1995, after nearly nine years in Beersheba, Efraim and his wife decided to return home to northern Israel with their four children. Efraim continued his social rehabilitation and carpentry work, hiring four disabled workers and setting up a studio in the village of Kfar Hassidim.
"The woodwork I did in Beersheba evolved into a therapeutic workshop with a functional purpose. My intention was never to produce furniture or something large, but to create small things that the handicapped would be able to handle with greater ease," says Efraim. "The idea is to give them something to make their lives better. I don't tell them what to do or educate them. I accept them as who they are."
The disabled people who work with Efraim come to the studio three times a week for three hours at a time.
"They are not capable of spending long hours doing the same thing, and everything has to be very organized, but at the end of the day, they know they made something with their own hands, and I think this makes them happier," he says.
Efraim adds that the work is also therapeutic because it improves coordination and gives the handicapped workers a goal.
"The point of this is not to earn money," he says, although they are paid for their work. "The point is to create work that will be enjoyable and functional."
With Efraim's help, the disabled produce wooden cars, puzzles, animals, building blocks, swings, see-saws and wheelbarrows. Most of the orders are from kindergarten teachers in the area or people who drop by the studio, but the toys are also available from an on-line store that sells anthroposophic toys in Israel at www.tzuf.co.il.
"There is something very na ve and deeply human about the mentally disabled," says Efraim. "I do not see myself as giving them something. They are the ones who give to me, and I am constantly learning new things from them about life and myself."
For more information, call Chaim Efraim at 052-6206-235.