The stars came out

Many stereotypes about the physically and mentally challenged were shattered with a performance by the visibly disabled.

disabled child 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
disabled child 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
It was just an experiment. An opportunity for a group of developmentally disabled youngsters to feel, for one evening in their lives, like rock stars and hip-hop dancers; a chance to bask in the applause of the parents and volunteers who know these children to be more than the sum total of confused speech, awkward gaits and slow movements. On paper it was just an experiment. "Shalva Idol" was an idea conceived by a young man called Asaf Finkelstein, who serves as events coordinator for Shalva - The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel. While most staffers at the association are quite traditional in their dress, Asaf stands out in his chinos and long ponytail, his only compliance with the conservative surroundings being a small green kippa that flops from side-to-side as he excitedly runs from computer to fax machine to rehearsal hall. "Our in-house band, the Shalva Children's Ensemble, was presented with an opportunity to participate in a very important music fair in the early spring, but the plans fell through for reasons that were out of our control," says Finkelstein. "Nevertheless, there was a lot of sadness. When it became clear that it wasn't going to happen, our music director Shai Ben-Shushan said, 'But we're so prepared. Why don't we have our own music festival?'" Finkelstein met with the teachers and volunteers offor Shalva's afternoon programShalva Afternoon Activity Program and tossed about the feasibility of such an event, considering the wide range of syndromes and disabilities displayed by children and teens in the program. Ben-Shushan joined forces with movement therapist Gili Sagiv-Adam, and three months of intensive rehearsals began. Before long, aan interactive Web site got wind of the budding event and asked if they could film a rehearsal; not long afterwardsthen a writer who tells wonderful stories about an off-the-beaten-path Jerusalem asked if she could write about it. Suddenly it made sense to take the eventit out of the Har Nof recreation hall (where it was originally scheduled to take place) and instead, at the behest of the Jerusalem Municipality, let it serve as the opening event of a mega-three day festival, the likes of which this country has never seen.what festival was it?? Consequently, the rehearsals for what had begun as an in-house talent show gained intensity as 70 developmentally disabled youngsters readied themselves for the feel-good event of the season called "Shalva Idol." The genesis from which tThe Jerusalem show was conceived as a version of the TV show was none other than American Idol - the top-ratedpopular US television show featuring Paula Abdul and other well-known celebrities as judges. Family, friends and advocates of the disabled weren't making comparisons, though, because the challenged performers exuded the confidence and professionalism of Broadway veterans. While each segment was carefully composed and choreographed, countless special moments occurred when one or another performer chose to improvise. In every case, the actual act was further enhanced by these unpredictable moments of impetuous joy. An unplanned somersault. A quick hip-roll and wave. Few in the 300-seat theater remained seated as their enthusiasm brought them to their feet and waves of unbridled love emanated outward from center stage. When Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski walked onto the stage to open the first-time event, he was greeted warmly and with a sprinkling of friendly hootscoming from the crowd. The mayor always sports a trademark smile, but on this particular evening he was positively beaming from ear to ear as he offered introductory remarks. The organizers of the event had been told that due to a pressing scheduled, he might only stay for a few minutes. However, the mayor's burning obligations were apparently rescheduled, because he remained throughout the entire show, wiping away tears of joy from his front-row seat. Many stereotypes about the physically and mentally challenged were shattered that evening as the performers - visibly disabled for the most part - brought the house down with everything from break dancing, free-style rapping, to moving to the rhythms of a myriad of percussion instruments. These kids were hipper than hip. It had been announced in much of the pre-show electronic publicity and press releases that everyone who was able to participate would do so according to his ability, and Shalva kept that promise. The ones who could sing raised their voices in a manner that made the rafters shake. Those who could dance did so wildly - everything from simple swaying to frenzied boogies, demonstrating unexpected deftness as the small Begin stage seemed to hold numbers far greater than the square footage would suggest. Two of Israel's most beloved performers served as masters of ceremony for the evening. Asaf Ashtar (of television and movie fame) and Sharon Shachal (from children's television) bantered and helped ensure that the mood remained silly and upbeat. At no point in the evening were disabilities condescended to. In fact, Ashtar played the fool to Shachal's straight man as she teased him mercilessly, much to the delight of the Shalva children and their families. Sadly, these kids are often teased because they are different, and they embraced the opportunity to good-naturedly laugh at the expense of someone else. For example, after each group concluded their performance, Ashtar immediately announced that they were "the winners!" Can this writer admit that she shrieked with laughter at this display of buffoonery, holding her sides every time Shachal yelled at him? But then, again, I always found The Three Stooges to be high-art. The stupendous high point of the stellar event was a special guest appearance by Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born) superstar Jacko Eisenberg. The screams from the females in the hall reminded me of the Beatles history-making performance at Shea Stadium in 1965. With chants of "Jacko!" "Jacko!" piercing the air, those of us who are unfamiliar with his music were in for a powerful treat. Clad in blue jeans, T-shirt and sport jacket, the unassuming Eisenberg serenaded the crowd with several of his better-known songs, which had everyone in the seats and aisles swaying to and fro, accompanying him on the chorusestag-lines. And just when we thought the evening couldn't get any better, he capped off the unforgettable eventevening with a scorching rendition of a song he'd penned specifically for the Shalva youngsters called, "Its Hard Not to Believe." Sometimes I feel emotional Because from my place in time I know it's gonna be good, I know it's gonna be fine. As the crowd noisily exited the hall into the cool night air, it was clear that for the special needs children of Shalva, their families and those who believe in them, the festival was an all-too-rare opportunity to share with the world that "disabilities" are more about "ability" than "dis." Once can only envision what the Shalva community has in store for us next year. Miracles come in many forms, and this was, indeed, a wondrous occasion. Because what simply began as an experiment "on paper" developed into a previously unimagined extravaganza that will certainly require a larger venue triple in size next year. And I'll be there. Along with, I believe, a dozen friends or more. Because inspiration, hope and laughter are things to be shared. Just ask the children of Shalva. They know all about it.