My neighbor, Miriam Freier, is receiving the 2013 Humanitarian Award at the
Knesset this week.
She needs a large space to receive her honored guests.
They will bring their own chairs. Wheelchairs.
Among them is a man in his
30s who was married and earning a living as an internationally acclaimed
musician, when he suddenly needed surgery for a brain tumor. The operation saved
his life but damaged his speech and motor control. His marriage
A brilliant young woman born without the use of her limbs
managed to complete her university degree, and today works as a teacher, writer
Another young woman in a wheelchair is blind and
hard-of-hearing. She’s working on a project translating the signs in the
botanical gardens to Braille.
There’s a married couple, both in
These five, and the other nine residents of Shalheveth –
renovated public housing fitted for the wheelchair-bound in central Jerusalem –
will be cheering for the petite grandmother, 78, who gave them their independent
lives and a chance at a fulfilling future.
Here’s how it happened.
Thirty-five years ago, Freier was working as teacher of the hearing impaired and
bringing up her five children. Her husband, Dr. Zerem Freier, was chief of
pediatrics at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
He didn’t often bring his work
home, but this time he told her about a very sick patient gnawing at his heart.
The 12-year-old girl, named Miriam, like her, had that one-in-a-million negative
reaction to an inoculation. She was paralyzed, abandoned by her parents, and in
failing health. Could he bring the girl home for Succot? Remembers Freier, “He
said the little girl’s days would be few and he wanted to give her a taste of
the holiday joy. My own life had so many moments of pleasure, how could I not do
it?” The girl became a regular visitor in their home. And so, they began
effacing the border between the professional world of healing and their private
On the day little Miriam died, she called for Dr. Freier. “Abba,”
she said. “Stay with me. Today is surely my last day.”
He held her hand
and said the Shema prayer with her in her last moments.
The door had
opened, and many physically challenged young people followed Miriam to the
Freier home with its magnificent, hand-tended garden.
The vans that
deliver and pick up wheelchair-bound persons became a regular sight on the
street in front of their home. I always knew where they were headed.
can still remember Miriam’s laugh and happiness when she was at our home,” said
Miriam Freier. “It inspired me to invite others.”
After all, child rescue
was a Freier family tradition. Freier’s esteemed mother- in-law, Rabbanit Recha
Freier, lived in a home near the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. In 1932, a year
before Hitler took over Germany, young people came to the rabbanit’s kitchen and
told her they had lost their jobs and been expelled from school. She interrupted
her own studies and the obligations of a Berlin rabbi’s household to get young
people to move to Palestine, despite the advice of community leaders “to allow
matters take their course.” The result was the movement called Youth Aliyah,
later organized by Henrietta Szold, to save the children of Europe.
Freiers’ own five children couldn’t remember a Shabbat or holiday without guests
in wheelchairs at the table.
That wasn’t enough. Miriam Freier began
expanding her activities. She started organizing outings and even trips abroad,
raising the funds, sometimes finding the money in Jewish communities abroad as
she went along. Not that every hotelier or maitre d’ was happy to have her
challenged group fill their lobbies and dining rooms. “I understand,” she says.
“They’re not bad people, they simply don’t want to be reminded that this could
happen to us or those we love.”
From her deep conversations with visitors
and trip participants, she realized that the key to long-term satisfaction for
the growing group of severely challenged persons she mentored was independent
housing. This would be a huge project. Each apartment would need two bedrooms –
one for the challenged man or woman, the other for a full-time helper. There
would need to be professional staff to run it.
She wasn’t daunted. With
little experience in such matters, she went ahead. In 1998, she set up an
organization, naming it for husband’s late brother, scientist and head of the
Israel Atomic Energy commission, Shalheveth Freier. “Shalhevet” is the Hebrew
word for flame. She approached the Jewish Agency to allow her to renovate a
50-year-old dilapidated apartment building. With help from Yisrael Schwartz at
the Construction and Housing Ministry and the National Insurance Institute, they
were on their way. Freier raised additional funds for renovations.
years ago, Shalheveth opened.
Our friend Dennis Turner was among the
first to move in. A mathematician and computer expert from the US who expected
to find a place in the hi-tech industry and establish a family, he had the
horrendous bad fortune of contracting a rare infection in the spinal cord after
he moved to Jerusalem. He was wheelchair-bound, in chronic pain and vulnerable
to further complications. After five years of misery in a Dickensian nursing
home, he regained his dignity and independence in Shalheveth, holding down a
consulting job, wheeling to Aroma coffee shop, even hosting
Freier was his personal angel. He is one of three residents who
have died since the home opened.
As you can imagine, there’s a long
waiting list to get in. Freier would like to open a second facility. Shalheveth
Home already saves taxpayers $220,000 a year because of the economic benefits of
independent living, she points out.
And – her newest project – she would
like to see more of the residents have the pleasure of marriage. She’s already
enlisted the Ruderman Foundation to fund a marriage prep program called
C., the facility’s only married man, was already
living at Shalheveth House when he met P. He can only communicate by pointing to
letters on a Hebrew board and assumed he’d be alone his whole life. For him, it
was love at first sight.
P. says it took her longer to appreciate the
love and companionship he had to offer. His personal story is full of abuse and
violence. Hers was smothering her with love. Today, they laugh together, quarrel
and make up like any couple.
They live in one room of
Their two caregivers share the other.
At an annual
Passover Seder, residents not only take part, but host other severely challenged
non-residents. Freier raises funds for the Seder right here in the neighborhood.
“People can be so kind and generous,” she says.
Indeed. Mazal tov,
Miriam Freier. For more information about Shalheveth: www.shalheveth.org
author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern
Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the
Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.