The Human Spirit: Neighborhood hero

My neighbor, Miriam Freier, is receiving the 2013 Humanitarian Award at the Knesset this week.

Applause, people clapping 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Applause, people clapping 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
My neighbor, Miriam Freier, is receiving the 2013 Humanitarian Award at the Knesset this week.
She needs a large space to receive her honored guests. They will bring their own chairs. Wheelchairs.
Among them is a man in his 30s who was married and earning a living as an internationally acclaimed musician, when he suddenly needed surgery for a brain tumor. The operation saved his life but damaged his speech and motor control. His marriage dissolved.
A brilliant young woman born without the use of her limbs managed to complete her university degree, and today works as a teacher, writer and painter.
Another young woman in a wheelchair is blind and hard-of-hearing. She’s working on a project translating the signs in the botanical gardens to Braille.
There’s a married couple, both in wheelchairs.
These five, and the other nine residents of Shalheveth – renovated public housing fitted for the wheelchair-bound in central Jerusalem – will be cheering for the petite grandmother, 78, who gave them their independent lives and a chance at a fulfilling future.
Here’s how it happened. Thirty-five years ago, Freier was working as teacher of the hearing impaired and bringing up her five children. Her husband, Dr. Zerem Freier, was chief of pediatrics at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
He didn’t often bring his work home, but this time he told her about a very sick patient gnawing at his heart. The 12-year-old girl, named Miriam, like her, had that one-in-a-million negative reaction to an inoculation. She was paralyzed, abandoned by her parents, and in failing health. Could he bring the girl home for Succot? Remembers Freier, “He said the little girl’s days would be few and he wanted to give her a taste of the holiday joy. My own life had so many moments of pleasure, how could I not do it?” The girl became a regular visitor in their home. And so, they began effacing the border between the professional world of healing and their private lives.
On the day little Miriam died, she called for Dr. Freier. “Abba,” she said. “Stay with me. Today is surely my last day.”
He held her hand and said the Shema prayer with her in her last moments.
The door had opened, and many physically challenged young people followed Miriam to the Freier home with its magnificent, hand-tended garden.
The vans that deliver and pick up wheelchair-bound persons became a regular sight on the street in front of their home. I always knew where they were headed.
“I can still remember Miriam’s laugh and happiness when she was at our home,” said Miriam Freier. “It inspired me to invite others.”
After all, child rescue was a Freier family tradition. Freier’s esteemed mother- in-law, Rabbanit Recha Freier, lived in a home near the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. In 1932, a year before Hitler took over Germany, young people came to the rabbanit’s kitchen and told her they had lost their jobs and been expelled from school. She interrupted her own studies and the obligations of a Berlin rabbi’s household to get young people to move to Palestine, despite the advice of community leaders “to allow matters take their course.” The result was the movement called Youth Aliyah, later organized by Henrietta Szold, to save the children of Europe.
The Freiers’ own five children couldn’t remember a Shabbat or holiday without guests in wheelchairs at the table.
That wasn’t enough. Miriam Freier began expanding her activities. She started organizing outings and even trips abroad, raising the funds, sometimes finding the money in Jewish communities abroad as she went along. Not that every hotelier or maitre d’ was happy to have her challenged group fill their lobbies and dining rooms. “I understand,” she says. “They’re not bad people, they simply don’t want to be reminded that this could happen to us or those we love.”
From her deep conversations with visitors and trip participants, she realized that the key to long-term satisfaction for the growing group of severely challenged persons she mentored was independent housing. This would be a huge project. Each apartment would need two bedrooms – one for the challenged man or woman, the other for a full-time helper. There would need to be professional staff to run it.
She wasn’t daunted. With little experience in such matters, she went ahead. In 1998, she set up an organization, naming it for husband’s late brother, scientist and head of the Israel Atomic Energy commission, Shalheveth Freier. “Shalhevet” is the Hebrew word for flame. She approached the Jewish Agency to allow her to renovate a 50-year-old dilapidated apartment building. With help from Yisrael Schwartz at the Construction and Housing Ministry and the National Insurance Institute, they were on their way. Freier raised additional funds for renovations.
Twelve years ago, Shalheveth opened.
Our friend Dennis Turner was among the first to move in. A mathematician and computer expert from the US who expected to find a place in the hi-tech industry and establish a family, he had the horrendous bad fortune of contracting a rare infection in the spinal cord after he moved to Jerusalem. He was wheelchair-bound, in chronic pain and vulnerable to further complications. After five years of misery in a Dickensian nursing home, he regained his dignity and independence in Shalheveth, holding down a consulting job, wheeling to Aroma coffee shop, even hosting parties.
Freier was his personal angel. He is one of three residents who have died since the home opened.
As you can imagine, there’s a long waiting list to get in. Freier would like to open a second facility. Shalheveth Home already saves taxpayers $220,000 a year because of the economic benefits of independent living, she points out.
And – her newest project – she would like to see more of the residents have the pleasure of marriage. She’s already enlisted the Ruderman Foundation to fund a marriage prep program called Significant Other.
C., the facility’s only married man, was already living at Shalheveth House when he met P. He can only communicate by pointing to letters on a Hebrew board and assumed he’d be alone his whole life. For him, it was love at first sight.
P. says it took her longer to appreciate the love and companionship he had to offer. His personal story is full of abuse and violence. Hers was smothering her with love. Today, they laugh together, quarrel and make up like any couple.
They live in one room of Shalheveth.
Their two caregivers share the other.
At an annual Passover Seder, residents not only take part, but host other severely challenged non-residents. Freier raises funds for the Seder right here in the neighborhood. “People can be so kind and generous,” she says.
Indeed. Mazal tov, Miriam Freier.
For more information about Shalheveth:
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.