ITIEL AZRAN , 15, hugs his young friend, four-year-old Hadar Ashkar. There is clear affection between the two despite their age difference. Azran, a 10th-grade student at the yeshiva of Kfar Maimon, has been coming to ALEH Negev, on the outskirts of Ofakim, to volunteer with Ashkar once a week since the beginning of the year. He and his classmates spend almost an hour on a bus each way to get here. Today the volunteers have organized a carnival for the Jewish holiday of Purim, complete with games, music and pizza.
“I work with him on motor skills – he doesn’t have a lot of words,” Azran said. “At the beginning it was hard, but it has made me feel more mature and more responsible. I learned to love him and this hour gives me energy for the whole week.”
In most places in Israel, the two would never have met. Azran is an Orthodox Jewish high-school student, and Hadar, an Arab preschooler. But ALEH Negev, a rehabilitation village in southern Israel, is a special place. Age, religion and national origin don’t seem to matter here.
The 150 residents who live here all have severe disabilities and require round-the-clock care. They get that care in a village-type set- ting amid lawns planted with flowers, a fully accessible amphitheater, and a wide range of therapies and services.
“Today is a day of costumes and laughter but under the costumes are children whose lives are very hard,” said Avi Wortzman, a former deputy minister of education who is now the CEO of ALEH Negev. “It is our privilege to give them joy, quality of life and love. Love, love, love – that’s the strongest word here.”
Most of the residents live in the village for the rest of their lives. In many cases, their parents don’t visit frequently, either because of advanced age or they find it difficult to see their children, said Stav Herling, the head of PR for ALEH Negev.
Once each year, on either the Jewish holiday of Purim or Shavuot, they invite the parents to a party in the village. The parents, many of them aging, sat next to their adult children, who were dressed in costumes. The staff, as well as volunteers, sang and danced as music blared.
ALEH Negev has 150 residents, both adults and children with severe disabilities. They will welcome 24 new residents in the coming months. In some cases, Herling said, parents of young children can’t bear to be separated from them, and take them home after a trial period. But most parents believe that it is better for their children to be in the village, which can offer a social life and ac- cess to state-of-the-art care.
The full name of the village is ALEH Negev – Nahalat Eran, named after Eran Almog, the son of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog who was born autistic and mentally retarded and died at age 23. It is one of four ALEH facilities around Israel.
“I feel the spirit of my son has spread to every corner of the village,” Almog tells The Jerusalem Report
in an interview. “His love reaches every walker and every volunteer. His spirit is about making ‘tikkun olam
’ – making a better society.”
is also the name of a new project backed by the Ministry of Education to promote disability awareness and special needs inclusion. The idea is to expose Israeli 9th-grade students to the world of disabilities and accessibility. The program includes lectures about disabilities and “field activities” – opportunities to do joint fun activities such as a hike with children their own age who have various disabilities.
Students also get exposed to what it’s like to live with a disability through activities such as navigating an obstacle course in a wheelchair or walking around the school grounds with blindfolds and canes.
So far 10,000 students have participated in these programs and the organizers hope to reach 100,000 in the next few years.
Doron Almog says that Israeli society has made strides in accepting people with disabilities but there is still a long way to go. Deputy prime minister Yigal Alon had a daughter with severe disabilities whom he placed in an institution in Scotland, and prime minister Golda Meir never mentioned her granddaughter with Down syndrome.
In the past, there was a stigma in Israel about having children with disabilities, Almog says. Perhaps because of the Holocaust Israelis were supposed to be tough and never show weakness. But Israeli society is strong enough to include everyone, he says.
Almog, who participated in the hostage rescue in Entebbe, has been open about his own son’s disabilities and sharply critical of Israel’s lack of inclusion for the disabled. He imagines what his son Eran would say to him if he could speak. “My dear father, I can’t speak or complain. No one will hear me. I have no voice and no ego. The hostages in Entebbe were kept for one week. I am a hostage from birth and will be one every second of my life.”
Part of the philosophy of ALEH is to integrate the facility into the local community as much as possible. At ALEH Negev, residents can come to the village for services including occupational therapy, physical therapy, hydrotherapy, psychological services, and even a dentist who is trained in treating people with disabilities.
There are also two nursery school classes, which integrate people without disabilities (mostly children of workers in the village) with their disabled peers.
There are 380 employees at the village including more than 100 who work around the clock in the residential homes. There are also 450 volunteers who come at least once a week. Volunteers include high school students, retirees and even prisoners who come to the village as part of their rehabilitation.
Almog is also raising funds for a 50 million dollar hospital that will supply services to many residents of the Negev. They expect to break ground in a few months and hope to complete the hospital in 2020.
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