February may be Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM), however, for Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) every day is filled with improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. The organization’s focus is on services strategically located in the Negev and the Galilee to serve populations beyond the crowded Tel Aviv-Haifa-Jerusalem corridor.
“We believe that the inclusion of people with disabilities and special needs should be woven tightly into the fabric of Jewish life; all the more so in Israel,” says Yossi Kahana JNF-USA’s Director of Disability Programs.
With dedicated supporters from all over the United States, and through a variety of initiatives and partnerships, JNF-USA is providing state-of-the-art rehabilitative services, special education and medical care in areas where they were previously unavailable. They are also ensuring that recreational facilities, including forests, parks, picnic areas, playgrounds and nature trails, are inclusive for visitors of all ability levels.
Gary Kushner, 71, a successful Washington DC lawyer in a large international law firm, chairs JNF-USA’s Disabilities Task Force. Growing up in southern New Jersey he frequently faced anti-Semitism, which led him to get involved with Jewish causes. A JNF-USA Culinary and Wine Mission ten years ago ignited his passionate commitment to helping support Israel.
“My wife Gail and I were blown away by everything that JNF-USA was doing. It was amazing,” says Kushner.
A meeting with Major General (res.) Doron Almog, founder of the ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran rehabilitative village sparked Kushner’s interest in people with special needs. A visit to the village secured his commitment.
“I saw all the good that this Village did for young people. I saw their smiles and I wanted to make a difference,” says Kushner. His involvement in this JNF-USA project led him to the Chairmanship of the Task Force.
“We started the Task Force five years ago, and today we have 70 lay leaders across the United States, raising some seven million dollars a year, even during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says proudly.
According to JNF-USA, one in eight people in Israel has special needs. The organization is involved in four flagship projects to make sure that no one is left behind.
Special in Uniform
National service is an integral part of growing up in Israel, and Special in Uniform brings home the value of ensuring that everyone fulfills their potential and is accepted into society, regardless of their disability. A key way of achieving this goal is by integrating youth with disabilities, who otherwise would be unable to serve, into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
These soldiers take part in a four-day military training course before being assigned to bases across Israel, where their jobs can range from assisting intelligence, preparing protective kits, culinary work, printing and other roles. It also helps graduates integrate into the workforce and Israeli society in meaningful ways. Today, Special in Uniform is proud to have integrated over 450 young people who are now serving their country through the program.
One of its newest initiatives, supported by Burt and Rita Tansky, from Palm Beach, FL, is showing the world how hearing impaired and deaf soldiers can become an integral part of the IDF. “Both our son and daughter-in-law are hearing impaired,” explains Burt Tansky, whose son had been a US Federal Government Employee for over 28 years. “There is nothing that should hold someone back because they are hearing impaired, and we are striving to ensure that Israeli society works to include every member of society in a meaningful way.”
For Burt, integration into the IDF help sets the foundation for people with special needs to find fulfilling employment opportunities after their service. “These soldiers are contributing to their country, and the program is helping to give them an opportunity at a better life. This is what impressed us the most, and we hope to continue to help these young people be the best that they can be.”
This 25-acre, state of the art rehabilitate village offers unparalleled care for people with severe disabilities, empowering residents and outpatients to reach their potential for communication and development. It is the only facility of its kind in the world.
ADI Negev is designed specifically for the needs of people with cognitive and physical impairments over the age of 21. It houses 145 residents, has 450 employees and 550 volunteers and provides some 45,000 individual outpatient treatments for children and young adults living in outlying communities in the Negev. Plans are underway for the construction of a state-of-the-art neuro-orthopedic rehabilitation hospital, the first and only rehabilitation hospital in the Negev.
“The most unique aspect of ADI Negev’s approach is the way that they treat every single individual who works and lives there with such appreciation and respect,” says Dr. Adrienne Matros, from Newport Coast, CA, a clinical psychiatrist with over 30 years of experience with people with special needs, “There are no weaknesses, only challenges, and every time I visit ADI Negev, I see that every individual is treated to be the best that they can be, regardless of their challenges.”
Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center
Laurie Landy sits on the Task Force, and is also the owner of a therapeutic riding ranch in New Jersey. She visited the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center in the Arava and fell in love. It is the only center of its kind within 200 miles and serves a broad spectrum of the special needs population, from school-age children to adults with cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities.
“The impact of nature and horses for special needs people opens up the nervous system to help people become aware of who they are from a sensory, motor and psychological perspective, and even fosters a spiritual connection,” she says.
“We need to develop the Negev and Red Mountain is a gem in the middle of a desert. It brings people together around a common cause and empowers everyone that is involved, from the children and adults with special needs to their families, the community, the volunteers, and the donors. Disability should be looked at in a way of how people are able,” she says.
The outdoors plays a vital role in Israeli life. As such, LOTEM provides outdoor learning activities for children with special needs which includes accessible hikes, educational programs, nature clubs, accessibility at heritage sites and more. The main site is a 40-acre farm that provides hands-on learning experiences with a teaching garden, olive press, winery, bakery, and trails suitable for wheelchairs.
The success of LOTEM has moved beyond just making nature accessible, but rather making Israel accessible, as Roni Wolk, National Chair of LOTEM, has emphasized since becoming involved with the program. “We are working to train professionals across all of Israeli society, including the private and public sectors, medical professionals, government officials, and educators, to better integrate those with special needs into Israeli society,” explains Wolk, from Roswell, GA, “People still do not necessarily know how to communicate and engage with individuals with special needs, and LOTEM is helping to fill this need by making sure everyone can be included in all aspects of daily life.” Today, LOTEM trains an average of 6,000 professionals a year, and continues to grow its impact throughout the country.
For Kushner, the impact of Jewish National Fund-USA on the lives of people with disabilities throughout the Negev and the Galilee is something that has not only touched him, but has shown the way that he, like many others, has helped make a true difference in the lives of so many Israelis.
He sums it up with a personal story. “Gail and I visited ADI Negev many times. Gail saw that when families visited their loved ones, siblings were at a loss. She said to me ‘what does this visit mean to the brothers and sisters? What can be done to make them feel special?
“That was the impetus for our involvement in creating and dedicating the Gary and Gail Kushner Family and Siblings Activity Center at a spot overlooking the desert mountains.”
“Gail said, ‘I knew what I wanted to do, but I never imagined how many people it would touch and how beautiful it would be.’”
“JNF is creating jobs, facilities, schools and enhancing quality of life throughout the Negev and the Galilee,” continues Kushner. “This is the future of Israel.”
For more information on Jewish National Fund-USA’s work in support of people with disabilities, visit jnf.org/disabilities or contact Yossi Kahana at [email protected] or 212.879.9305 x240.