The Human Spirit: The dreamer

Imagine having dreams and desires, and facing the world blind, deaf and with impaired balance.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
As I finger-spell my name into Yossi's hand, I apologize for never having acquired neat "handwriting." I realize this is the most literal use ever of the term. And I wonder at the patience required to understand a maiden attempt at communicating with someone unpracticed at forming the letters when this is your only means of communication with the world. Patience isn't the first word that comes to mind when you meet Yossi Samuels. His restless body language broadcasts a young adult's haste and nervous energy. Indeed, today he's eager to be on time for a wine-tasting tutorial with one of Israel's premier sommeliers. All of us learn to live with our mixture of talents and imperfections. If you have illegible handwriting, you learn to type. But imagine having a young man's dreams and desires, and facing the world blind, deaf and with impaired balance that makes walking difficult. That's more challenges than Helen Keller had. Yossi is 30, the same age as my oldest son. Like me, his mother Malky Samuels brought her nearly year-old second child to a Jerusalem well-baby clinic for a routine vaccine to prevent deadly diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. Not considered a risky procedure. Except that the vaccine the nurse injected Yossi with plunged him into a world of darkness and silence. Like Helen Keller, he poured out his frustration and frenzy on the household. Malky and Kalman Samuels waved away well-intentioned advice to institutionalize their son so they could focus on their other small children. Then when Yossi was eight, teacher Shoshana Weinstock, his Annie Sullivan, came into his life. Deaf herself, Weinstock finger spelled into his hand. Not the cold water under the pump, but the hard surface of a Jerusalem table clicked in the mind of the unruly child. The five Hebrew letters that spell shulhan became the platform of the internal temple of his being. Letter to letter became words, word to word became concepts, until Yossi Samuels could develop the language necessary to understand advanced concepts and to dream. Yossi, dark-haired and smiling, is a natty dresser - today wearing a tailored yellow striped shirt and dark pants. Narrow eyeglasses magnify the shadows and allow him to discern movement in the room. We're sitting in a lounge of Shalva-Beit Nachshon Children's Center in Jerusalem. Four hundred and fifty special-needs children spend their days, and sometimes sleep-away weekends, in this facility with its wonderland of multisensory development therapies. THE MAJORITY of children in Shalva have Down's syndrome. Others have different physical and mental challenges. All of their parents have had to revise the hopes and dreams that accompany every healthy newborn. Creating this center was the dream Malky Samuels nurtured in the years before Shoshana Weinstock broke through to Yossi, when as a mother she felt overwhelmed and isolated by providing the care she believed he and every challenged child deserved. If God helped Yossi, she pledged, she would devote her life to helping other families with special-needs children. She and Kalman founded Shalva in 1990. The center, in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, bears the name of Nachshon Wachsman, son of Esther and Yehuda Wachsman. The Golani Brigade soldier would often drop off his little brother Raphael, who has Down's syndrome. In 1994, Nachshon was murdered by terrorists. Both the Samuels and the Wachsmans have poured their energy into raising the funds to build and constantly improve the center, turning their pain and disappointment, as well as their ongoing passion for life, into a place of healing and a refuge for the weary. Not surprisingly, both are children of Holocaust survivors. Yossi works mornings as a shipping clerk, but hopes the wine-tasting will be far more interesting. Wine-tasting is sometimes done blindfolded to keep the taster focused on taste alone, and his highly developed senses of taste and smell should be an advantage. In an early lesson, his French-trained teacher cut fruit on a board, and without touching or tasting it, Yossi could identify each variety. A cochlear implant allows Yossi to feel vibrations, but his daily communication is through his hands. Avi Samuels, 27, one of Yossi's five siblings, helps us by finger spelling my questions to Yossi at lightening speed, but I successfully spell a single Hebrew word into Yossi's hand, and he shouts out "Bush!" Yossi has recently returned from Washington where he met with President George W. Bush. Last year he happened to meet the American ambassador to a European country, and Yossi jumped at the chance to request that the ambassador arrange an audience for him with the president. Now how likely was that to happen? Suddenly, six weeks before Hanukka, he received a formal invitation to attend the White House Hanukka party. So Yossi, his dad and brother Avi flew to the United States. BETTER THAN a pumpkin-turned-coach, friends who knew that Yossi can identify any model of car from touching the door handle sent around a Lincoln limo to pick him up. The Samuels had to be at the White House by 5:30. "I was very excited and felt so honored," says Yossi. They were ushered inside the White House, where 200 leaders of the Jewish community had gathered. The latkes were crisp and delicious. And then each guest was offered a private photo opportunity with the president. Like another Joseph, who was led from a dark prison to speak to the head of an empire, he was escorted through a side door to meet President Bush. What would any of us sa, given such an opportunity? Yossi reached for the president's hand, and held it gently, speaking quietly in his indistinct Hebrew. "I admired your father, but I admire you more," Yossi began, with his own dad translating. "Please confront Iran before your term is over." Kalman Samuels hesitated for a beat before giving such advice to the most powerful man in the world, but then continued word for word. President Bush listened with interest and nodded him on as Yossi expressed his views on the Middle East. "This young man knows what he's talking about," he said. But Yossi wasn't finished. He leaned closer to the president. "One more thing, please. I want to ask you to help gain the release of our kidnapped soldiers: Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev." Daily, Yossi Samuels prays for Gilad, Ehud and Eldad, asking the God who gives sight to the blind, who releases the bound and who allowed a blind, deaf Jerusalemite in a wheelchair to meet the president of the United States, to give them the strength to endure their hardships, to set them free from their bondage and to bring them home to those they love and who love them. As President Bush said, "This young man knows what he's talking about."