Giving Beit Shemesh children a helping hand

The Rakefet Child Development Center, which treats more children than the equivalent municipal facility, is in danger of closure.

Children studying (illustrative) (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: TAMAR SCHAPIRO)
Children studying (illustrative)
If Ziva Schapiro’s worst fears are realized, there will soon be a lot of children in Beit Shemesh facing developmental challenges without the support they desperately need.
Schapiro is the very capable and highly motivated brains, hands, feet and practically everything else behind the Rakefet Child Development Center in Ramat Beit Shemesh. For the past 10 years the facility has been evaluating and treating thousands of local children, predominantly aged between three and nine, with all kinds of learning-related disabilities – including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and language and motor difficulties.
The center director has clearly done her homework. One wall of her cozy office is all but obliterated by an impressive array of framed diplomas and certificates, from both here and the US. When Schapiro informs me she’ll soon have yet another official piece of paper to hang up there – a master’s degree in child development from the University of Haifa – I suggest she may have to stop studying, or get a bigger wall. “Those should be my biggest problems,” she quips with a wry smile.
It seems that the 50-year-old, New York-born child development professional, and the center she lovingly established and runs, are indeed facing some serious mountains to climb if the place is going to stay alive for much longer.
The center operates under the auspices of the Ligdol v’Lifroach (To Grow and Prosper) Child and Family Services (a.k.a. LVL nonprofit), whose stated objective is “to help Beit Shemesh children with developmental challenges reach their potential through therapeutic intervention and educational enrichment services – regardless of their ability to pay.”
The latter, naturally, throws up serious existential challenges. “Children are referred to us by their kupot holim [health funds], but they only cover two-thirds of the cost of the services we provide,” explains Schapiro. “However, we are not allowed by the kupot holim to charge the clients for the balance, so we have to find the funds from elsewhere.” “Elsewhere” translates all too succinctly into “donations.”
The Rakefet Center is conveniently located in the medical care heartland of Ramat Beit Shemesh, betwixt local branches of all the major national healthcare service providers. In addition to Schapiro’s office, and the reception desk staffed by seemingly ever-smiling secretaries, the facility incorporates a dozen or so rooms used by a wide range of professionals. While I was at the center, I noticed children of various ages receiving many kinds of care.
The rooms, like the center as a whole, have clearly been designed with comfort and acceptance in mind. There are bright colors and fetching design items strategically dotted around the corridors, and the place appears wellstocked with a range of fun equipment for movement-based care and art therapy artifacts, with the adjacent bomb shelter doubling as a storeroom and a music therapy spot. “This is soundproofed, so kids can pound away on the drum and not disturb anybody,” Schapiro points out incisively.
The center’s multidisciplinary ethos is the crux of the whole venture, and led to its creation in the first place.
Schapiro came on aliya 25 years ago as a qualified occupational therapist, and quickly set about purveying her skills here. “I worked as an occupational therapist in Jerusalem, and then in Beit Shemesh for a few years, and I had a small private practice in my home in Beit Shemesh, but I felt that I was really lacking working together with a multidisciplinary team. When you work with children who have special needs, it is very helpful to have an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a psychologist, whoever, working together.
“The idea is to collaborate, as opposed to working through private clinics, so we can really build a plan that is meaningful for the parents and for the family. At that time, there was no such thing in Beit Shemesh.”
The familial support system is, says Schapiro, an indispensable part of the therapeutic process. “I think a child has to be seen in the context of its family,” she notes. “The therapy is, of course, directed towards the child, but usually when parents are not involved in the therapy process it is not as successful. That’s because when the parents are involved, they can practice things at home with the child, and the child can progress much faster.
“Also, if the parents are not aware of what is going on with the child and aren’t making appropriate changes at home, sometimes the situation can become even worse. If you are talking about a child who is going through psychological therapy, particularly when they come from a house that has a lot of problems, you just give the child therapy and the kid might then have a harder time going back home – because he is then in a better place, but he sees the gap. It is really important to work with the family.”
HENCE, THE Rakefet Center – which has now been offering its multifarious services to thousands of children from Ramat Beit Shemesh, and Beit Shemesh in general, for over a decade.
Schapiro says the center deals with around 1,500 children each year – around four times the number who receive treatment at the Beit Shemesh Municipality’s child development center, which operates from the city’s Meyerhoff Community Center.
That isn’t the only difference between the two facilities. According to a newsletter the Rakefet Center is currently distributing, in a desperate attempt to raise funds to keep the place going, Schapiro notes that “the national government provides the city of Beit Shemesh with NIS 400,000 a year to fund child development services.
Several years ago, the Beit Shemesh Municipality chose to open the child development center in the Meyerhoff Community Center. This much smaller center received all of the NIS 400,000 allocated for child development services, and the Rakefet Center gets zero.”
The problems, it seems, began several years ago. “In 2009, Bituah Leumi [the National Insurance Institute] chose us to be one of 10 pilot programs for children with ADHD,” Schapiro explains.
“Part of the agreement was that Bituah Leumi would pay 50 percent of the cost of the program, as long as the city paid 25% – the other 25% was from the amuta [nonprofit]. Unfortunately, over the three years of the program, the city only paid half of their obligation.”
The situation, says Schapiro, was not helped when in 2010 the city decided to open its own child development center. “Despite the fact that there already was a large child development center in the city [the Rakefet Center] they chose to open a new one that would be ‘theirs.’ The location of this center was chosen to serve the at-risk populations near the matnas [community center], especially from the Ethiopian community.”
The latter is a commendable sentiment which could help to tackle some of the community’s problems. However, according to Schapiro, the facts on the ground indicate that this issue is not being addressed.
“In the report of children served in 2014 that was provided to the court, out of 400 children served, 17 were Ethiopian,” says the Rakefet Center director.
Schapiro adds that a few months ago, she applied to Mayor Moshe Abutbul and “other top city officials, and told them that if we don’t receive funding, we may have to close our doors. This would mean that 1,500 children who are served at the Rakefet Center each year will be without therapy! Unfortunately, the city has not stepped up to support us.” Attempts to elicit a response from municipality spokesman Matityahu Rosenzweig on the matter went unanswered.
Schapiro says she has had legal wranglings with the municipality in the past.
“In order to get a subsidy for arnona [municipal tax], for which nonprofits are eligible, we had to have legal intervention – as the city denied our request for the subsidy, and even put a lien on our bank account at one point. The Misrad Hapnim [Interior Ministry] authorized our subsidy, even though the city did not recommend it. Somehow, the city didn’t recognize us as a ‘voluntary’ organization… can you understand that?” It is difficult to see where this leaves Schapiro and the center. The director, by the way, has worked on a voluntary basis since day one, even receiving an award from then-welfare and social services minister Isaac Herzog in recognition of her volunteerism. She also says her own family helps keep the center afloat.
Schapiro has now resorted to suing the municipality for a share of the annual local child development services budget. “I told the mayor that I’d be happy to take just half of the budget, and then I could get a donor to provide matching funds,” she says. “This situation also makes it difficult for us to raise donations. Potential donors can get suspicious and question why our own municipality is not supporting us.”
LVL is now appealing for donations that would help it continue to provide its services to local children and their families. The activities that could do with a helping hand range from sponsoring the center’s hotline to supporting behavioral therapy sessions, didactic evaluations and sponsoring membership of the Rakefet Center toy library. All donations are tax deductible.
For more information: (02) 992-0947 and