Two-sided education

"Kvutzat Hashahar," a group of mentally challenged adults, joins high-school girls from around the country on a meaningful trip to Poland.

Kvutzat Hashahar 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Maurice Kalfon)
Kvutzat Hashahar 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Maurice Kalfon)
‘I have a heavy heart, but I’m growing. I will never forget about the Jews that were murdered here,’ asserted one of 27 participants in the third annual week-long trip to Poland for intellectually disabled adults organized by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.
Esther Barabash, head of the delegation, said it was a very successful mission that served a double purpose.
Not only did these special-needs adults have an opportunity to share in their nation’s history, but the program was also one of integration with the general population. Busloads of high-school girls now in Grade 12 – 76 from AMIT Renanim in Ra’anana, nine from Ulpanat AMIT in Beersheba and 16 from Yavne Holon, as well as a number of teachers – also traveled to Poland and spent most of the week with the intellectually challenged individuals.
It was an “important educational value of the first order,” declared Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon.
The group of mentally challenged adults had been named Kvutzat Hashahar, which means “group of dawn,” symbolizing hope and innovation.
“They are people too,” Barabash stated. “Society should understand that they are equal citizens, a part of the Jewish people and a part of Israeli society. They also have the responsibility to remember the Holocaust and to speak of it, as do all the rest of us.”
During the trip, they were accompanied by 12 staff members – including a nurse, three social workers, guides and counselors – as well as an adviser from the Education Ministry. Half a year was spent preparing both the challenged adults and the high-school girls for this unique mission.
The itinerary was similar to that of other group visits to Poland in commemoration of the Holocaust. It included, among other sites, major cities that were once the center of East European Jewish life, the Lublin yeshiva, the Children’s Forest and, of course, the death camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka.
In many ways, the disabled adults are “like children,” noted high school teacher Tami Oron. Visiting the children’s graves was particularly moving, she said. “It was very emotional. They cried and they made large butterflies and flowers to decorate the area. They dedicated these butterflies and flowers to the children. The girls helped them to read poems and songs about the [murdered] children. They were able to relate to it. They feel like small children themselves.
They act like small children. But they feel; they cried, and they spoke of their sorrow. They’re human beings. You could see they understood what was going on.”
According to Oron, the high-school girls were affectionate, patient and eager to explain the significance of the places and events. They all “felt very comfortable with each other,” she said.
“We held a meeting and did some activities together in the summer, which turned out absolutely fantastic,” said Orly Eshkoli, another teacher who accompanied the girls. “Some [students] were apprehensive at the beginning,” because they worried that travelling with Kvutzat Hashahar might “take away from the experience of going to Poland. That’s why we did the summer meetings. Within 10 minutes, they said, ‘Wow! We’re in love.
They’re people like you and me.’” In fact, several AMIT girls now plan on volunteering with Kvutzat Hashahar on a weekly basis, so the “relationship will be long-term,” Eshkoli said.
AMIT Renanim student Ariana Goldsmith, 17, enthused about the “double purpose” of the Poland initiative. Goldsmith immigrated to Israel five years ago from New York, where she was an active volunteer for Yachad, which is Hebrew for “together.” As described on its website, the organization is “dedicated to addressing the needs of all individuals with disabilities and including them in the Jewish community.”
“I’m specifically interested in this type of project – working with challenged individuals,” Goldsmith said. “When I found out that people from Kvutzat Hashahar were coming, I was really excited. It was right up my alley.”
The group was “high functioning,” she added. “They have to be if they’re going away for a week. Being in Poland is very intense. Counselors were with them, explaining things and telling them stories at their own level. Some of them were crying and hugging. Some totally understood it, perhaps others didn’t.”
For Israeli-born Linoy Gimani, also a 17- year-old AMIT Renanim student, spending time with Kvutzat Hashahar was a totally new experience. “At first, I was apprehensive,” she acknowledged. “I thought it would be an emotional enough experience just to go to Poland. But within a second I got over it.”
So much so that she was the first to volunteer to ride on the same bus as the challenged adults.
Before the trip ended, Gimani, who had no prior experience working with the disabled population, eagerly took the contact information of a Kvutzat Hashahar counselor. She now plans to perform her national service with them.
During the trip, Hashahar members expressed their sentiments, which the staff recorded. “It closes a circle,” said one. “My father was here, and I think that every Jew should come and see.” “I will never, ever forget this mission,” commented another.
The profound impact of the experience combined with gratitude for the opportunity was clearly expressed in the following note of appreciation, which went right to the point: “It was so sad. Thank you so much for taking us.”