Dreams do come true

The 11th annual Shalva Idol brings special-needs kids to the stage.

At Shalva Idol on June 22: ‘There is no greater happiness than seeing these special-needs children perform.’ (photo credit: SHALVA)
At Shalva Idol on June 22: ‘There is no greater happiness than seeing these special-needs children perform.’
(photo credit: SHALVA)
Behind the scenes of Shalva Idol, the energy and excitement of the participants are palpable as they put on their costumes and rehearse their parts. Based on the Israeli version of American Idol, the annual musical production features the talents of children with special needs, who this year presented a unique adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.
“We’ve worked so hard on this production for the past six months,” said Shai Ben-Shushan, director of the annual Shalva Idol event as well as of the Shalva Band. “It’s so special to see these kids go on stage and perform in front of thousands of people here at the International Convention Center,” he told In Jerusalem.
More than 200 children, teens and young adults with a range of special needs, took part in the event last month. Ben-Shushan said that a staff of 180 volunteers, including 35 National Service volunteers, were on hand for the past few months to assist and prepare the participants for the event. Many of the volunteers were high school students from Jerusalem and the surrounding area who guided the special-needs participants through the entire performance preparation process.
“It takes time to learn the musical parts and dance sequences, as well as the singing,” explained Ben-Shushan. “But it’s worth it for everybody. I’ve had parents come up to me after, telling me how proud they are to see their child on stage for the first time as a star.”
Ben-Shushan, a former IDF elite commando who was injured in a military operation, has been organizing Shalva Idol for the past 11 years on a voluntary basis.
“During the rehabilitation phase following my injury, I began to think how can I give back to people? I wanted to do something for the community, and I could really empathize with special-needs kids. I was injured by a grenade, and with all the shrapnel in my body it was hard for me to even eat.
“I was disabled, but through the rehabilitation process I got through it,” he recalled. “Encountering Shalva gave me the opportunity to move on completely and light up the world of special- needs individuals with music and dance.”
Ben-Shushan, a married father of two, took his love of music and developed the idea for Shalva Idol. He spends many hours a week teaching children of all ages and capabilities modern and classical songs, as well as choreographing musical sketches for the annual musical production.
One volunteer, Noam Katz, 17, holds onto the hand of Israel, 21, a special-needs individual who is going to perform on stage as a lion.
“It’s amazing to be part of this project and to see how everyone finds their place on stage,” she told In Jerusalem.
Katz, a high school student in Gush Etzion, said it was her first time taking part in Shalva Idol. “Israel does an amazing dance routine in the show,” she said with a smile.
“Some of the kids are very shy, but they start to open up after a while,” said volunteer Sarah Samuels, 17. “These kids never get to be the stars; this one night on stage is such a great gift. The love they receive from the audience makes this such an unforgettable evening for everyone involved, but most of all for the performers.”
Samuels, who is the daughter of Shalva founders Malka and Kalman Samuels, has been working with Sapir, 14, for two-and-a-half years.
“Sapir is really excited to perform tonight,” Samuels enthused as Sapir high-fived her. “I’ve seen how she has grown with confidence at Shalva.”
Malki and Kalman Samuels decided to establish Shalva following their personal experience raising their son Yossi, who became deaf, blind and hyperactive as the result of a faulty vaccination. The couple had promised that if God would help them with their son, they would find a way to give back. When Yossi was eight, a deaf teacher was finally able to teach him Hebrew finger spelling, opening up his world.
Subsequently Shalva, The Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, was established in 1990 by the Kalmans. The organization provides high-quality care and inclusive programming that is free of charge for special-needs individuals from infancy through adulthood, including those with Down syndrome, developmental delay and the autism spectrum.
Some of Shalva’s programs include Early Childhood Preschools, where participants attend mainstream programs in their home communities; the After School Activity Center, which invites peers from the community to come and forge relationships with the young adults of Shalva; Camp Shalva, a sleepaway camp experience that brings together 200 children with disabilities; and Shalva’s basketball team, which is part of the Hapoel national basketball association’s youth league.
In September, Shalva will be opening a national children’s center, the largest center of its kind for children with disabilities in Israel. It will feature 2.43 hectares (6 acres) of parks that will be open to the public, as well as a sports center, an auditorium and educational, therapeutic and recreational facilities. The center has been designated by the municipality to be the welcoming face of Israel’s capital.
For Ben-Shushan, this year’s Shalva Idol can be summed up in one word: “Amazing.”
“You have to see the production with your own eyes. There is no greater happiness than seeing these special-needs children perform.
“When your spirit is happy, you can achieve anything.”