The Human Spirit: August Challenges

Summer in Israel can be cruel and for parents of children with special needs, finding summer activities can be unusually tough. Fortunately, some good people who turn life’s cruelties into opportunities have come to the rescue.

Tehiya Ben-Meir (photo credit: Courtesy of the Ben-Meir family)
Tehiya Ben-Meir
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Ben-Meir family)
August is the cruelest month, according to T.S. Elliot’s Prufrock. Israel in August with its high temperatures and drought of summer camps finds parents who work outside the home scrambling for safe and interesting recreation for their children. Even for parents with children with usual needs finding the right summer activities can be tough. For those with children with special needs the challenge can be daunting.
Fortunately, good people who make life’s cruelties into opportunities to do good have come to the rescue.
Take, for example, Meir Ben-Meir. Three decades ago when he was a teenager growing up near Tel Aviv, no special needs kids belonged to the religious youth movement Bnei Akiva that was a main focus of his life. “It wasn’t that Bnei Akiva per se had anything against special needs kids, it’s just that in general you didn’t meet such children. They were at home, hidden away. You didn’t see them at the park and think, ‘there should be something safer and better for them.’ You didn’t wonder why they didn’t take part in any of the club activities. Fortunately, attitudes have changed,” said Ben- Meir, a medical administrator and father of four. “Now we ask ourselves what we can do to make life happier for them and to include them.”
As every Bnei Akiva parent knows, the apex of the summer is the movement camping experience in one of the nation’s forests. In my experience, kids even lobby to skip family vacations abroad not to miss these exuberant forest days. Members of Bnei Akiva spend from two to six days away from home, depending on their age. Thirteen years ago, the youth movement established Shevet Yuval, a multi-aged group for special needs children. For two days, these kids join the other groups for overnight camping. Their presence requires greater safety measures and additional counselors, and in these times of financial crunch in the non-profit sector, the forest camping program was being cut down.
Ben-Meir began raising awareness and funds in memory of his beloved wife Tehiya Turner Ben-Meir. Tehiya died just seven months ago of TTP, an auto-immune disease that impacts blood clotting. She was 41. The camping program for children with special needs now bears her name. Like her husband, Tehiya Ben-Meir was also an active member of Bnei Akiva. And she, too, was concerned about breaking through the barriers that keep special needs kids out of public view. Her volunteer work with blind children during National Service sensitized her to their needs. She became an occupational therapist and particularly enjoyed working with children with Down’s syndrome.
“Working to raise money for the camp helped me deal with my own sorrow” said Ben-Meir. “Tehiya was outgoing and dynamic, and I wanted something energetic to be named for her.”
I CAUGHT up with Ben-Meir just before he and his children left their home in Modi’in to visit Camp Tehiya in the Ofer Forest near Zichron Ya’acov. He stresses that he “didn’t invent the wheel. I just helped make it work more smoothly. Shevet Yuval already existed. The camping program already existed, but was short of funds for activities and scholarships. We would upgrade the sports activities and pay for children who couldn’t afford to go.”
Sixty special needs boys and girls took part. "It’s a modest beginning, but the choice of activity is a message for our children, too.”
The Ben-Meirs’ children are 16, 15 and 10- year old twins, born while Tehiya was fighting an earlier battle with TTP. None of them is special needs. “Tehiya didn’t leave a will, but she was clear about her values. One of them was inclusiveness.”
Inclusiveness is also the theme of Shutaf. Started in 1997 by Beth Steinberg and Miriam Abraham, parents of special needs kids, this August Shutaf will mix 90 kids of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and disabilities together with kids who aren’t special needs in a program rich in arts, music and outdoor activities. The experience of becoming sensitive to special needs children is important for children of regular development too, according to Steinberg .”Our goal is to create one big, loving Jerusalem family from a varied population with so many challenges,” said Steinberg.
Shalva, the Associaton of Mentally and Physically Challenged Children, also runs an extensive summer day camp. Jerusalemites Malki and Kalman Samuels began this organization in 1990 after their then-ten-month old son Yossi became blind, deaf and hyperactive as a result of what was supposed to have been a routine DPT shot. Shalva offers an eightweek camp, the highlight of which is an eight-day sleep-away camp that includes camel riding, jeep trips and cable cars – all adapted for these challenged children.
READER KATHY Bergwerk (thank you readers for sharing so many of your stories of goodness) wrote me recently about one of her personal angels, Sarah Argaman from the communal village of Mevo Horon near Latrun. Sarah and her husband Baruch established Laga’at B’Mayim, a hydrotherapy center for three-month-olds to nonagenarians. They, too, began their healing work after a tragedy. Their sixth child, Michael, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was three years old. He died a year and a half later.
Sarah, a veteran swimming and gym teacher, said that she lost her zeal for life when Michael died. “I went through the motions of life. I cooked for my family but couldn’t taste anything. I taught, but without any enthusiasm. The color only began to return to my life after I underwent a course of water-based massage,” she said. “Immediately I knew what I wanted to do – share this with others.”
She underwent further training in physiotherapy, and a dream began to develop. She wanted her own center where suffering parents could receive help. Later, her vision expanded to treating children, as well. Baruch Argaman took upon himself the research and construction of the facility.
Seven years after Michael died she opened the therapeutic pool in Mevo Horon to the public. Says Sarah, “I can’t say I don’t miss my son, but when I get a child with special needs to smile, I feel the joy I had for him.”
Because the center is open to all, treatment is segregated by gender, making it possible for devout Jews and Muslims to take advantage of the services. “The center has also built a stronger bond between my husband and me,” she said. Baruch has gone on to become a hydrotherapist because they were short on male staff. Summer is the center’s busiest season, a time and place where human kindness, not cruelty, prevails.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.