This woman made aliyah and led the push for Israeli disability inclusion

Clara Katz Feldman is the social visionary behind the SHEKEL organization that has transformed the field in Israel and several other countries.

 AT LEFT, with residents of the SHEKEL kibbutz apartment on Kibbutz Alumim.  (photo credit: SHEKEL)
AT LEFT, with residents of the SHEKEL kibbutz apartment on Kibbutz Alumim.
(photo credit: SHEKEL)

On September 1, Clara Katz Feldman will be honored at the Jerusalem Theater, as she retires from a 32-year term as CEO of SHEKEL, an Israeli organization that spearheads inclusion for people with disabilities into the community.

Along with SHEKEL program participants and their families, expected guests include SHEKEL’s president, Lihi Lapid, and Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs Meir Cohen. The evening’s lineup features a Koolulam mass singing event with Einat Sarouf and TV host Linoy Bar Geffen.

Incredible accomplishments to meet parents' high expectations

If Feldman’s parents were alive, they would kvell at this outpouring of appreciation for their only child’s extraordinary accomplishments – but they wouldn’t be surprised. The sole Holocaust survivors in each of their Hungarian families, they had high expectations for this daughter.

“Clara is my name because my mother’s sister and my father’s first wife were called Clara, and two aunts were also named Clara. All were murdered by the Nazis. My parents put in my name all their hopes” says Feldman. “They wanted me to succeed at everything. To see through me their lost Claras.”

 SHEKEL president Lihi Lapid shares a laugh at one of the centers for people with autism, in Jerusalem. (credit: SHEKEL) SHEKEL president Lihi Lapid shares a laugh at one of the centers for people with autism, in Jerusalem. (credit: SHEKEL)

The family made aliyah from Romania in 1963.

“When you come from a Communist country, you come with nothing,” Feldman says. “But my parents were amazing. They wanted to give me a good life and good chances in life.”

While her parents attended a residential ulpan program, she was sent to the Mikveh Israel agricultural boarding school, where she quickly made friends. She went on to graduate from Bar-Ilan University with a BA in sociology and an MA in economics.

Before she turned 20, she married Tuvia Feldman, a fellow Romanian immigrant then studying at the Technion as part of the IDF’s Atuda program. The couple lived and taught at Yemin Orde Youth Village for three years, until Tuvia started his deferred military service. Then they moved to Givat Shmuel near Clara’s parents.

Building up SHEKEL, using innovative ideas for disability inclusion

In 1990, while working as budgets director at the Ministry of Welfare and Labor, Feldman was asked to help dissolve SHEKEL, then a small organization serving some 20 people. It had been established 11 years earlier by the ministry in partnership with the JDC but was floundering under the weight of a large deficit.

Feldman persuaded her superiors to build SHEKEL up instead of dissolving it, taking the lead in suggesting innovative ideas to salvage the organization, whose name is an acronym for the Hebrew “inclusion for people with disabilities.”

“I had seen the institutions and programs of the Welfare Ministry. I had seen so many unhappy families. I dreamed of doing something that others had not done,” Feldman says.

In 1991, she began her tenure as CEO of an organization that not only survived but thrived. Today, SHEKEL serves some 10,000 Israelis of all religions, with a broad range of intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and mental-health and physical disabilities.

How does SHEKEL help Israeli disability inclusion?

The cornerstone of SHEKEL’s approach is creating comprehensive inclusion in every area of life. That means providing a wide variety of housing models in communities, including cities and kibbutzim, employment in Israel’s business sector, and enrichment and cultural inclusion.

There are SHEKEL clients participating in an integrated orchestra with students from the Jerusalem School of Music and Dance; studying at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design; learning theater arts at Nissan Nativ; and working at Mobileye in kindergartens, hospitals, restaurants, shops and graphic art.

SHEKEL’s new prototype farm-based day centers for people with low-functioning autism broke new ground in Israel, connecting people with ASD to nature and the communities around them.

“Inclusion also means accessibility,” says Feldman. SHEKEL’s Israel Center for Accessibility oversaw a major accessibility upgrade of Israel’s Knesset, now one of the most accessible parliaments in the world. The center also created accessibility plans for the Old City of Jerusalem and for Jerusalem’s light rail system.

“People with disabilities are more than four times more likely to experience sexual and other abuse than the rest of the community.”

Clara Katz Feldman

Another project close to her heart is SHEKEL’s Toni Eliashar Therapeutic Center. “People with disabilities are more than four times more likely to experience sexual and other abuse than the rest of the community,” she explains.

Established 15 years ago, the center provides therapy for adults and children, as well as social and sexual education and guidance for professionals and families. A second center was set up in Beersheba to serve the southern periphery.

“There are times that I close my eyes and I don’t believe what we have accomplished,” Feldman says.

“Everything I started had never happened before in Israel. Now we all realize it is very important for people with disabilities to live in the community and be part of it. But this was a revolutionary concept 32 years ago, when most of them were institutionalized.”

Not everyone liked these ideas at first, and she struggled to raise money. “We had no office, just me and two other workers. We almost lost everything because there was no budget, but we succeeded in the end. With the help of our wonderful and professional employees, we’ve changed the way of thinking in Israel.”

SHEKEL: Training disability inclusion around the world

And not only in Israel. SHEKEL has trained professionals in Russia, and from many European and Asian countries, often in cooperation with Israeli government agencies and embassies, on the integration of people with special needs.

Feldman has now turned over the reins to Offer Dahary, a psychologist with disabilities, who served as Feldman’s deputy for several years. Feldman will continue in a voluntary capacity as chairman of SHEKEL’s board of trustees.

“I want to help the new CEO to raise money and change things that need changing, and implement new programs,” she explains. “Even if I’m no longer the CEO, I am still dreaming of new things we can do.”

She will continue volunteering with the elderly, as she has done for years, and looks forward to spending more time with her six grandchildren.

People often ask her why she chose to work in the disability field.

“I understand that maybe every Clara who didn’t survive could have been a doctor, an attorney or a social worker. I think subconsciously I understood that I needed to do something good for everyone,” she says. “And I have loved every moment of my work.”■

Clara Katz Feldman From Romania to Givat Shmuel, 1963