Home away from home

ALEH’s success is a tribute to many people in the community.

Aleh children at the bowling alley 521  (photo credit: Josh Hasten)
Aleh children at the bowling alley 521
(photo credit: Josh Hasten)
While unable to express his emotions in words to a room full of family and some new friends who have gathered for the celebration, the contagious smile on 13-year-old Raphael’s face indicates how excited he is to reach this milestone birthday – his bar mitzva.
Raphael, a wheelchair-bound, cognitively and physically disabled teen living at the Jerusalem branch of ALEH – the country’s largest network of residential facilities for children with disabilities – recently celebrated this momentous occasion alongside 80-year-old Larry Feinstein, his bar mitzva “twin.”
Flying all the way from Flint, Michigan, to be part of the festivities, Larry – a widower, father of three and grandfather of one – approached ALEH to help him finally realize his dream of commemorating his bar mitzva, something he had never done.
The match between him and Raphael came about when Larry was searching the Internet in hopes of finding a meaningful charity with which he could get involved, as he was eager to observe his overdue bar mitzva while on a planned trip to Israel this winter.
He came across the ALEH organization and its bar-mitzva program, and thought it might be a good fit.
“ALEH offers a means for bnei mitzva throughout the world to combine their smahot [joyous occasions] with the disabled children of ALEH,” says Dov Hirth, the organization’s marketing and development coordinator, and director of both its bar and bat mitzva program and its school program.
“Usually families who are planning to be in Israel on a given date and want to include a child from ALEH as their bnei mitzva’s ‘twin’ will let us know when they are arriving,” he explains. “We will then match them up with one of our children who are also planning to celebrate their special occasion, and ALEH coordinates a meaningful ceremony for both families together at the Kotel [Western Wall] on a Monday or Thursday morning.”
Ahead of the ceremony, he continues, the organization “will send pictures and some background information on the ALEH child to the family in their home community so they can see who they will be matched up with upon arrival.”
He adds, “I can’t tell you how many times families call me up even before they arrive in Israel, after receiving our materials – in tears – so emotional that they will be able to share their simha with a child from ALEH.”
In addition, the family arriving from abroad usually makes a charitable gift to the organization, which directly benefits the “twin.”
“It might be funding for a new wheelchair, or an extra three months of hydrotherapy, but it’s always something that will enhance the life of this child,” says Hirth.
But Raphael’s case is unusual, notes the program director.
“We didn’t receive a bar- or bat-mitzva twinning request from a family for their 12- or 13-year-old child,” he says, recalling that Larry simply sent an email to ALEH saying, ‘I’m 80 years old, never had a bar mitzva, and will be in Israel in January, and thought it would be nice to ‘twin’ with a child from ALEH.’” Hirth was intrigued by the appeal and decided to make it a reality. He organized all the logistics for a Western Wall celebration, while sending Larry pictures of Raphael.
Everything was set, with Larry arriving in Israel along with his brother Donald all the way from Los Angeles. But the severe winter storm in Jerusalem last month forced a change in plans – and ultimately ended up adding more meaning to the occasion.
Instead of having the bar mitzva at the Kotel, the event was moved indoors, to ALEH’s Jerusalem residential facility, and two other bar-mitzva-age ALEH boys – Michael and Yossi – joined the twinning ceremony along with their families. This made for one massive celebration with the participation of ALEH staffers, volunteers, residents, and even members of the local community.
The event began in a fifth-floor classroom of the organization’s school wing, with staffers leading a brief prayer ceremony for which the bar-mitzva boys – including Larry – put on tallitot and tefillin.
ALEH’s teachers had prepared the boys in advance, holding classes about the various commandments, blessings and customs for bar mitzva boys, as well as creating prayer books with tactile and visual stimuli to suit their needs.
While unable to recite the prayers coherently due to his disability, Raphael, completely aware and excited about reaching his milestone, emitted utterances suggesting that he could understand and express the prayers.
Raphael’s parents Yair and Vered, who were joyfully snapping pictures for posterity throughout, were grateful for Larry’s participation.
“We have been building up for this moment with Raphael since Succot,” said Yair. “He’s very excited, as you can see, as are we. When we heard about Larry and his desire to participate, we were so touched. We told ALEH to go for it.”
Michael’s father, Yechezkel, who was also busy snapping pictures and recording videos of his son’s special day, added, “We have had hard years, but our son has been living through miracles every single day.
We are so grateful [to God] and this place [ALEH] for the support and the warmth they provide for our son.”
Following the emotional prayer service, it was Larry’s turn to say a few words to the group.
“It took me 80 years to do this,” he said, “but it was worth the wait. It is wonderful to be here with the children. This couldn’t get any better – no doubt it’s better now than if I was 13.”
There was hardly a dry eye in the room.
Afterward, the celebration continued in the school’s common area with a fivepiece band, and volunteer students from a nearby high school came to join the new bar-mitzva boys for nearly an hour of traditional Jewish singing and dancing.
RACHELY TELLER, the organization’s Jerusalem branch volunteer coordinator and special projects manager, was present at the bar mitzva event throughout the morning, making sure everything was running smoothly.
Teller is now busy organizing “Team ALEH” for the Jerusalem Marathon set for March 1. The theme for the team this year is “each according to his own pace,” she says.
She explains that while a total of 100 runners – staff, volunteers and community members – will proudly be sporting ALEH T-shirts, the most inspiring “runners” will be the residents themselves, many of whom will be guided through the course in their wheelchairs by volunteers.
“One very special participant in the marathon is an inspiring 12-year-old boy named Haim who was wheelchair bound until the age of 10,” she says, pointing him out at the bar mitzva celebration.
“After years of hard work and intense therapy, he began walking on his own.”
Teller says ALEH volunteers will assist Haim in completing one of the shorter marathon routes.
Whether it’s the bar mitzvah program, the marathon, or any of the other activities ALEH holds throughout the year, Jerusalem branch director Shlomit Grayevsky says her organization’s success and impact are a tribute to special people like Larry, and so many other others in the community.
“We are not just an isolated home or a school for children with disabilities,” she says. “We have established a strong connection with the outside community, which creates meaningful and valuable relationships.
Everyone involved benefits.”
Woman of Action
One of the main facilitators of the ALEH bar mitzva program is Rachel Fishheimer. Fishheimer, who attended the recent joint ceremony for disabled teen Raphael and 80-year-old Larry Feinstein, has been serving for the past seven years as the director of education for the Jerusalem branch of ALEH’s school for children with disabilities.
According to her, 58 children from grades 1 through 12 – residents of the Jerusalem facility, as well as children who live in the community nearby – come to the school daily to attend classes. The facility also houses 13 special-needs children in two kindergartens.
“The philosophy of our school is that we believe that every child is entitled to an equal education, regardless of his or her physical or cognitive limitations,” she says.
“Often people ask me, ‘How can these children be educated?’ And my response is: ‘We expose the children to the same concepts as any other non-disabled children,’” she continues. “The bar-mitzva program is the perfect example. As the children approach their special day, we take the time to teach them basic concepts – what it means to be an adult, or what commandments are special and specific for boys and girls respectively.
We also connect them to different symbols of Judaism, teach the brachot [blessings], etc.” This occurs, she says, in a manner that “takes into account their ages and their cognitive abilities. And bottom line – we see results, we see understanding and advancement.”
The education director explains that often children with severe cognitive or physical impairments can develop a “learned helplessness,” where they become used to or dependent on others doing things for them.
“But in our school, we require the children to become active participants and decision-makers in their lives to the best of their abilities,” she says. “These may be small decisions, whether it’s flipping a switch to activate a recorded voice, or learning to relax one’s legs or twitch toes indicating they are ready to put their shoes on, but these children learn that they can play an active role in taking charge of their lives.”
Fishheimer, who made aliya from New York 28 years ago, adds, “It is really my belief that every person has the right to do for him- or herself as much as he or she can. And here we see how proud these kids are when they can, in their own unique way, outwardly express themselves – their thoughts and their feelings. While they are extremely limited, we teach them how to be as self-sufficient as possible, and we try to help them out in any way that we can.”