All these are my children

How could a mother of ten, whose only previous job was running a nursery school in her home, create a state-of-the-art facility?

MESHI 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
MESHI 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A woman I know, who runs a program in which 5,000 haredi woman study Torah weekly over the phone with secular Israeli women, believes that haredi women possess the power to transform secular-religious relations. That seems a bit far-fetched these days, when rioters in Mea She'arim have succeeded in blackening the image of all haredi Jews. But I am convinced that if every Jew had met Lifsha Feldman, the Jewish world would look very different. At her funeral two weeks ago, black-cowled Yerushalmi women were seen hugging non-religious women. Cab drivers and great Torah scholars stood side-by-side sobbing. Who was Lifsha Feldman, and what had she done in her 45 years that drew thousands to her funeral? Fourteen years ago, Lifsha gave birth to her ninth child, Ruchama, who was born with a heart defect. During surgery to correct that defect, Ruchama was left severely brain-damaged by a cerebral embolism. When the news finally sank in that Ruchama's damage was irreversible, Lifsha resolved to do everything possible to ensure that her daughter reach her full potential. SHE STARTED by forming an organization to offer extra therapies within Jerusalem's Alyn Children's Hospital. Three years later, she decided that was not enough. She visited all the existing institutions and determined that none were providing all the therapy she wanted for her daughter. So she decided to open her own. That decision was greeted with understandable scoffing. How could a mother of ten, whose only previous job was running a nursery school in her home, with no experience in special education, administration or fund-raising, create a state-of-the-art facility? MESHI (Machon Shikum Yeladim) opened its doors with 35 children. None of the therapists were prepared to give up their previous jobs because none were convinced it would survive the year. Today MESHI serves 180 children, and employs an even larger number of staff. I VISITED MESHI a few months ago. Every square inch of space is utilized, and each room individualized. There are rooms for specific therapies - speech, physical (large motor), and occupational (small motor) - and a "white room," which cost $70,000, to trigger sensory development. (The annual operating budget is $2.5 million, above what the government covers, even before the cost of building a new, expanded facility.) Each child's therapeutic program is "sewn to fit the child," not dictated by the number of therapies the government will cover. For some children, the goal is to be able to hold a spoon or sit in a chair; others, whose disabilities are primarily physical, not cognitive, will be successfully integrated into regular schools. The amount of equipment is mind-boggling. The exercise room has more treadmills and elliptical machines than most gyms. In one room, I saw two specially-designed vests like those used by astronauts in weightlessness. They are used as part of a new therapy developed in Poland. Each costs several thousand dollars. The oversized tricycle I watched a 12-year-old boy pedaling in the school playground cost $4,000. In one classroom, each child has a specially designed computer, which they use to communicate. One boy can only move his cursor via a specially-rigged sensor attached to his ears.   A visit to MESHI has a way of putting things in perspective. Irritated by your child's failure to clean his room? Try imagining what it is like for parents who have to physically assist a child weighing 60 pounds or more with every basic activity. Yet a visit to MESHI is far from depressing.   In every room - except those dedicated to particular therapies - there were six to eight children and an almost equal number of adults - a teacher and her assistant, together with various therapists and assistants to do the hands-on therapies. The love and dedication evident on the faces of the young women working with the children was reflected by the children. The overwhelming impression I left MESHI with is how much goodness and caring exists in the world. And it was Lifsha Feldman who set the tone. Every morning, she stood outside greeting each transport to make sure the children were removed gently. A neurologist related that Mrs. Feldman could discuss over 100 children at a time with him, without a file in front of her, with as much clarity as if she were discussing her own child. A FEW YEARS AGO, Lifsha was interviewed on Kol Yisrael's From Morning Until Evening program. There is something close to song in the calm and serenity with which she discusses the challenges of raising a severely handicapped child. "It is easier for a religious family to accept something like this - or at least I think so - because they know that everything is directed from Above. Not just directed, but directed for our benefit," she tells the interviewer. For that reason, she and her husband never thought about bringing a malpractice suit. These words are spoken without a trace of the bravado of someone trying to convince herself. She and her family have been fortunate, she says, in that it has been so easy to see the blessing from what happened to Ruchama: the hundreds of children who have benefited from MESHI It is not just the children of MESHI who have gained, she insists, but her own family as well. The children have learned to be more sensitive because of Ruchama, not to be embarrassed by disability, and that helping their sister and parents is an expected part of life. The interviewer asks what it is like to raise ten children. "Nifla (wonderful)" is Lifsha's one word reply. She makes it sound easy. "Remember," she says, "they are all different ages. They don't all come home at the same time. The younger ones have their time when they come home. And the older children have theirs. And when the older boys come home from yeshiva, they also have their time." O.K., she admits, maybe a mother of ten has to invest a little bit more energy and attention to make sure she doesn't miss anything with one of the children. But when she describes her joy at having the whole family - children and grandchildren - gathered around the Shabbos table, and the feeling of absence if even one child is missing, she is utterly convincing. Every time the interviewer cites some achievement of hers in MESHI or at home with the word, "You," Lifsha reflexively responds "We," either in reference to the staff of the school or her family. The interviewer asks at one point why MESHI serves both religious and non-religious children. "Lama lo - Why not?" Lifsha replies. "There is no educational reason to separate these children," she says. "As long as the parents don't have a problem with a school run by haredim, we don't have any problem either." "She thought only about others," Lifsha's husband repeated over and over in his eulogy. She gave her life for the children of MESHI. (She passed away suddenly late at night only hours before a scheduled meeting with leading government officials to discuss MESHI's budget deficits.) Her family is determined that the children of MESHI will go on receiving everything they need to reach their full potential - not least of all boundless love.