Unstoppable dynamo

Esther Abraham has not allowed a disability to hold her back – and credits being realistic with the drive that has made her one of Jerusalem’s most accomplished achievers.

Esther Abraham (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Esther Abraham
‘I do not believe in a positive attitude,” says Esther Abraham. “I am the most realistic person around. People who believe that things will work out if they think positively can sometimes be disappointed.”
Paradoxically, this vivacious, spirited woman gravely injured in a 1976 bus accident at the age of nine, is one of Jerusalem’s most accomplished achievers, honored with lighting a torch at the Independence Day Celebration in 2012, awarded the Knesset’s Volunteer of the Year award in 2017, fluent in Hebrew, English, French and Arabic, recipient of numerous degrees and certifications, and always on the move. This is her story.
Abraham was born in Jerusalem in 1966 to Rabbi Abraham Abraham and Dolly Abraham. Her father, whose parents came from India, had grown up in China, and later studied at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in New York, where he received rabbinic ordination. Her mother was raised in Fez, Morocco.
Abraham says that before they were married in 1959, her mother spoke French but could not speak English. Her father spoke English but could not speak French. They managed to communicate, she says, by speaking biblical Hebrew. Nevertheless, her father promised his bride that by the time they got married he would master French. He did, and after their marriage they moved to Tangier, Morocco, where he taught Jewish studies. In 1966, the couple moved to Israel, and Esther, the eldest of eight children, was born later that year.
The family lived in Jerusalem, first in Bayit Vegan, and later in Givat Shaul. Recalling her childhood, Abraham smiles and says, “My house was very cosmopolitan. We spoke French with my mom, and we spoke English with my father. Our house was always open for people and guests who came from abroad.”Abraham’s mother was a housewife and her father served as a teacher and rabbinical court judge.
While their religious orientation was haredi, they were in a somewhat different category, since they were immigrants.
“We were never real Israelis. We spoke different languages.”
In April 1976, during the intermediate days of Passover, Esther, together with the other girls in her class, went on a youth-group trip to Beit Meir. On the road back to Jerusalem, near Motza, the bus driver lost control while counting the money and the bus flipped over. Esther, who was sitting near the front of the bus, was severely injured – in a coma, with fractures and numerous broken bones. Her right leg was crushed, and had to be amputated above the knee. She was first taken to Shaare Zedek Medical Center, which at that time was located on Jaffa Road. The hospital was not equipped to deal with her injuries, and she was sent to Hadassah Ein Karem.
“The accident was a big shock to my family,” she says. At the time of the accident, they had been enjoying the Passover holiday, relaxing at home. The parents of one of her friends called and reported that Esther had lost a leg, and was in very serious condition. Her mother initially thought that the report was an exaggeration, and that she had merely fractured her leg. Her parents drove immediately to the hospital, where they were shocked to find her connected to tubes, covered completely in a cast. Her mother fainted.
Abraham herself didn’t know what was going on and could not move. Wryly, she says, “It wasn’t in style in those days, it wasn’t on TV, like now, when there are terrorist attacks.”
Her parents had very little help and had no information. For the most part, no one knew what it was like to lose a leg, other than soldiers, and Esther, age nine, was far different than a fully grown male combatant. Her mother tried to get her out of the hospital as soon as possible, and restore her to some form of normalcy. She recalls how her mother set up a stack of pillows in their home, after she returned home, so that she could sit atop the pile and view Lag Ba’omer bonfires through the window. Her sister would fill her empty stocking with paper, so that her leg would look normal when friends came over to visit.
Over the next several years, Abraham underwent numerous surgeries to attach a prosthesis to her injured leg.
“Each time I would have surgery, I would have to learn how to walk, and would have to undergo therapy. Frequently, there would be blisters, and I wouldn’t be able to wear my leg.”
The doctors assured her that she would get a new leg, which would look exactly as her other leg, and that “things would look just the same.” A medical technician showed her what he called her “new leg,” and she was devastated. It was half plastic and half metal, with a shoe attached.
“They never told me that there were stages to the process,” she says. “I felt that they had lied to me.”
Since that incident, “when I try to explain something to someone, especially children, I am very cautious. I always explain and ask them if they understand what I am saying; I am very patient. I don’t want them to get into the same place that I was. I prefer knowing the truth. I can deal with any truth, but not with lies. The process of repeated surgeries, therapy and the accompanying difficulties, “was hard for my self-image,” she says.
The doctors tried to save as much of her leg as they could. Today, she explains, when a soldier loses part of a leg, doctors frequently amputate more, rather than less, of the limb, to better adjust it for the ability to wear a prosthesis in the future.
“Today, I know that they made a mistake.”
Her parents tirelessly sought to improve her prosthesis and her ability to walk. They sent her to Scotland to try a certain procedure. She enjoyed the opportunity to visit with her nearby British cousins, but there were difficulties.
While riding on a merry-go-round in Scotland, her prosthesis became caught in the machinery. As a result, the stump of her leg became swollen, and blisters appeared when she attempted walking with the artificial leg in place.
Her parents then received a recommendation that she try the prostheses that were being developed at the Beit Loewenstein Rehabilitation Center in Ra’anana. Abraham, who was 12 at the time, could walk, but still had to undergo numerous additional surgeries, implants and skin grafts, so that she could walk without friction and pain. “I always fought,” she says simply. “Always.”
Her parents encouraged her to continue going on trips and outings with her friends. When she turned 16, her mother decided that she should learn how to swim. Both her father and mother enjoyed and appreciated sports and exercise, and they sent her for swimming lessons every day.
“I was very hard on myself. I went every single day. Rain, sun or snow, I was always in the pool. I was swimming a lot. When I turned 18, they asked me to become a swimming instructor.” Abraham, who had been volunteering with Magen David Adom since she was in high school, enjoyed teaching swimming, and studied at the Wingate Institute, where she received a certificate in swimming instruction.
Due to her experiences, she soon began to volunteer, helping army veterans and those who had lost limbs due to illness.
“I never said, ‘Yes, my life is so hard,’ and I never said, ‘Yes, my life is so good.’ I was very strict myself and explained to them, it might hurt, it might not, but this is life, and you have to manage.”
“Over the years, I have volunteered with people who have had experiences like mine and I always told them that there are days like this and there will be other days as well – that everything depends on the person’s perception and how he sees himself. Whatever happened, one should try to take it to new heights, and look at the situation with a sense of curiosity, rather than a sense of frustration.”
She soon felt that she could extend her expertise in swimming instruction to people with special needs. She took a course in sports therapy in Jerusalem, studied at Wingate for an additional two years and received a teaching certificate in sports for those with special needs.
After working for a year at Alyn Orthopedic Hospital, a rehabilitation center for physically challenged and disabled children, adolescents and young adults, in hydrotherapy, which involves the use of water for pain relief and treatment, she was offered an opportunity to work with army veterans at Bet Halochem in Malha, Jerusalem. There, she created an entirely original method of treatment using hydrotherapy, that she called ‘Estherapia.’ She worked there for 13 years, from 1994 until 2007, then continued her path of helping others by running the swimming program at Ilan, a center for disabled adults in Jerusalem, for 16 years.
She has utilized her aquatic skills to teach swimming to both haredi and Arab girls. The program for Arab girls was sponsored by the Jerusalem municipality for girls from the refugee camp in Shuafat.
“I respected them [the Arab girls] and they respected me,” she says. “I told them that I was coming from a haredi place and that there is a lot of resemblance between us.”
For the past 10 years, she has volunteered at the Center for Independent Living in Jerusalem, which provides information and training materials and helps develop solutions and services for persons with disabilities. Today, she serves as the chairman of the organization’s board of directors.
She has volunteered for the National Insurance Institute for many years, helping victims of terrorism in their rehabilitation. Several years ago, Abraham and her sister were visiting at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. As she walked down a corridor, she noticed a Chinese man lying in bed. For the two sisters, whose grandparents had lived in China for many years and had many positive experiences living among the Chinese, helping a Chinese person was something special.
“We would do anything for Chinese people,” she says. “I know a few words in Chinese, and I can say ‘My father is from Shanghai’ in that language. The man had been injured in a terrorist attack in Mahaneh Yehuda, and his hand and leg had been amputated.” Abraham assisted the injured man.
Today, Abraham walks with the aid of crutches. She has had more than 100 surgeries, is in the midst of a long rehabilitative process, and cannot wear her prosthesis. Israel, she says, has a mixed record when it comes to how it treats the disabled.
“Technologically, in industrial design and accessories for people with disabilities, we lead the world, and significantly ease the lives of those in need of these services.
On the other hand, in terms of society’s attitude toward people with disabilities and respect for them in the public sphere, we are still far behind, and people are intolerant and disrespectful of those with disabilities.”
She matter-of-factly sums up her success.
“Because I was realistic, I understood that there was no alternative but to roll up my sleeves and cope with my situation.”
She has done far more than “cope”; one might say that she has accomplished far more with one leg than most people accomplish with two.