‘We can do it’

SHEKEL helps people with disabilities find the light at the end of the tunnel while feeling at home.

At the opening of the exhibition ‘SHEKEL Dialogue with American Art' (photo credit: SHEKEL)
At the opening of the exhibition ‘SHEKEL Dialogue with American Art'
(photo credit: SHEKEL)
My dream is to stand on the stage of the Oscars and say, ‘We can do it.’” Josh Aronson, 29, has just gotten offstage after emceeing an event. Looking dapper in a suit and tie and being extremely charming, his charisma is clear for all to see. Except that when he says, “We can do it,” he is referring to a specific group: people who are disabled.
Aronson has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that until a few years ago he struggled to accept he had. On the night we meet he is presenting an event that is held by: SHEKEL, an NGO that aims to help its clients come to feel at ease with taking a role in society.
In honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the US Embassy’s American Center in Jerusalem last week hosted the opening of the exhibition, “SHEKEL Dialogue with American Art: Pop Art, Cartoons and Superheroes.” It showcases joint efforts between clients of the organization and students at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, as part of the NGO’s Dialogue Through Art initiative.
One pair at the American Center are Avi, 30, and Aviv, 24. Avi, a client of the NGO, met Aviv, a second-year Bezalel student, at the academy, where they opted to collaborate by sharing a dance on their first meeting.
“We decided to create everything that we do through movement,” recounts Avi. Despite having only worked together twice, one senses they already have a strong bond.
Such a bond is representative of SHEKEL’s primary goal of making those in its care feel comfortable within the working world. Founded in 1979, it is based in the capital and works throughout the country, with 8,000 clients of all ages, 550 educators and professionals as well as 700 volunteers.
Its ethos is clear to see in its Talpiot center, where 200 of its clients work in a range of roles from product manufacturing, candle-making and graphic design.
As I’m taken around by the director of resource development and marketing communications Sharon Simmer, an air of happiness is pulsating in every room.
The most recent embodiment of this is its latest social enterprise, the Harutzim restaurant, located next door to its Jerusalem center. The kosher eatery – which employs 12 staff members, seven of whom have disabilities – sets out to reinforce SHEKEL’s desire to ensure that its clients are consistently experiencing interaction with the outside world. The seven employees will be trained for year and then enter into the private sector, their confidence in their abilities bolstered and demonstrated by their time working.
“Very often people with disabilities are put in positions where they don’t come into contact with the general public.
The idea was to put them in contact with them,” says Simmer. “SHEKEL realized that Israel’s food industry is a thriving industry and we realized that we have a lot offer for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities.”
Back at the American Center the reception for the exhibition is in full flow, as visitors wander around and admire the works of art on display. Talking with Bill Murad, the director of the American Center, he says it was the center that reached out to SHEKEL.
He explains one of the reasons that the center chose the organization as a partner was his amazement on a visit, where he saw “the whole range of Jerusalem society – and that is unique and not evident in every place that we go.”
Later, over the phone, I ask Simmer if she can explain what makes SHEKEL different from other NGOs in Israel.
In her view, what distinguishes it is its core belief that “a person with disabilities or special needs has the exact same need for stimulation, challenge, learning, hobbies and social life as anyone else in the community.”
Speaking with Aronson at the American Center, it’s clear that his experience represents the impact the NGO is capable of having on individuals. Having moved to Israel from Manchester at the age of 18, he lived in a range of hostels catering for people with disabilities before arriving at SHEKEL. He became part of its Living in the Community program, in which he resides alongside several other developmentally disabled people, together with a helper, in a relatively independent environment.
For him, the change he has experienced has been profound.
“I’ve been to hostels where we were working with plastics, putting in screws in containers, but SHEKEL saw my potential to be a journalist, to be a movie producer.”
As a result of collaborating with them, he currently works for United Israel Appeal and is soon to move into his own private apartment, granting him more autonomy.
As the night comes to an end, Aronson is on stage and in a moving speech, explains what SHEKEL has come to mean for him.
“A couple of years ago I was on the phone, and for the first time I said that I’m on my way home, which I wouldn’t have usually said. I’d say I was on my way to a hostel or something else, but I’d never described SHEKEL as home before,” he says. “SHEKEL has become a home, and something I can call my own.” •