An open house

Akim hostel Beit Julia, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, offers the mentally challenged an opportunity to realize their potential.

beit julia old person 248.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
beit julia old person 248.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Neither the gate nor the door to Beit Julia on Derech Hebron is locked. Visitors can come in freely. and residents who want to sit and watch the world go by can do so by stepping just outside the gate and sitting on one of the two benches next to the fence. Beit Julia, which was the first of the Akim hostels to be opened in Jerusalem, will celebrate its 40th anniversary on June 9. When Beit Julia was first proposed by immigrants from Germany, Dr. Mally and Dr. Avraham Spighel, who wanted to give their mentally challenged son Gabriel maximum independence and the opportunity to realize his potential, their idea was not greeted with great enthusiasm. Mainstreaming people with physical and mental disabilities had not yet become the norm, and the Spighels encountered strong opposition from people who didn't want Gabriel or others like him in their neighborhood for fear that their presence might reduce real-estate values. Aside from that, some people were simply afraid of a group considered to be not "normal." Had they met Shlomo Katz, 57, they might have thought differently. Katz is one of the original residents of Beit Julia. A man with smiling eyes and good humor who is content with his lot, Katz remembers when Beit Julia was little more than scaffolding. There were no staircases, and the floors had not been laid. "There was nothing here," he says. "This was a border area. There were no malls, no banks and no shops. The nearest grocery store was in Baka, and it was nothing like the grocery stores that are in the neighborhood now." Katz speaks intelligently and has an excellent memory. "What are you doing here?" I ask him. "Are you sure you belong in this environment?" "This is my home," he answers simply. "This is where I'm happy." Katz had a difficult childhood. His biological father died when he was five years old. At that time, people didn't give much thought to the traumatic effect that this might have on such a young child. He did badly in school and only got as far as completing first grade, where he barely mastered the alphabet. By that time his mother had remarried, and his stepfather decided that he should be institutionalized. Katz was sent to Yedida, a boarding school for delinquents near Abu Ghosh, where the youngsters were routinely punished regardless of whether they'd misbehaved or not. They were hit with iron bars and rubber hoses. When the pain and humiliation became too much for the young Shlomo to bear, he ran away and returned to his mother. However, she was unable to care for him and sent him back. He spent seven years there before he was transferred to Beit Julia. At the beginning, life was not a bed of roses at Beit Julia, either. Aside from the fact that the building was far from complete, teenagers living in the area used to throw stones at the residents and call them retards. "It was not a pleasant experience," says Katz, "but after a couple of years it stopped, because people in the neighborhood got used to us and started dropping in." Aside from that, he reasons, "What is so terrible about being retarded? Even doctors and professors are retarded. Even you are retarded," he says to me. "Anyone who doesn't know something is retarded in that field. We're all retarded, but not in the same way." As far as acceptance goes, notes social worker Nachi Mazor, whenever the nearby synagogue needs a 10th man for a quorum, they turn to Beit Julia and the residents happily oblige. With rare exceptions, all 53 residents at Beit Julia go to work. Some of those who have reached retirement age have stopped working but still go to their former places of employment. South African-born David Goodman, the director of Beit Julia, graduated with a degree in social work from Bar-Ilan University. In 1992, without actually planning to do so, he began to work with people with special needs. He found the challenge interesting and rewarding. He has been at Beit Julia for five years during which time he has developed a wonderful rapport with the residents. He respects them as fellow human beings and doesn't talk down to them. He also leads weekly music sessions with them. Goodman is a great believer in the benefits of music and movement. Music induces movement, and people who are enjoying music together become less insular and even more courageous, he says. Goodman has introduced something resembling karaoke in that each person in the room gets a chance to sing with the microphone - either solo or to the accompaniment of the others. This is my first introduction to Shlomo Katz: When I walk into the lounge, which serves as a snooker room as well as a music room and has a flat screen television on the wall, he is singing a Yiddish song - "Rebbe Elimelech." He's also acting it out and doing it quite well, much to the delighted grins of his fellow residents who join in the chorus. Goodman is playing the guitar and moving to the rhythm, his short corkscrew peyot bobbing in time to the music. Goodman is soft spoken, gentle and encouraging, giving each of the people around him an ego rub and demonstrating genuine concern when any of them complains about being cold or uncomfortable. Suddenly there's a new energy in the room. Rabbi Ya'acov Erblich, who was a well-known cantor in Los Angeles, comes in with his nephew Avi Erblich, who still lives in LA and is also a well-known cantor. Rabbi Ya'acov frequently sings to and with the residents. In his black vest and pants, white shirt with flowing sleeves and generous silver-white beard, his face radiating goodwill, he looks as if he has stepped out of a production of Fiddler on the Roof. A consummate professional who would perform even to an audience of one, Rabbi Ya'acov performs for some dozen people on this occasion, giving it everything he's got. The delight with which the performance is greeted is all the reward that he wants for his mitzva. He then sings a couple of duets with his nephew, after which Avi Erblich introduces his listeners to a non-Hassidic melody - "O Sole Mio," which he sings in Italian after explaining the meaning of the lyrics in Hebrew. Afterwards, Katz takes me to his large, sunny room, which he shares with another resident. For 27 years, he shared a room with Malka, who was his significant other for 36 years. Malka, who was 10 years older than Katz, died 10 years ago. Near the expensive bed that his mother bought for him recently are photos of Malka, her mother and her sister. The age difference between them didn't bother Katz. "I wasn't interested in her age. I was interested in her. I loved her dearly and she loved me, and that was what mattered." After Malka died, Katz, with the encouragement of his mother, took up art. The walls of his room are covered with paintings and drawings that are Katz's handiwork. But art is not his only talent. He also has a blue belt in judo, he swims, and he used to play basketball. Religiously observant, he gets up each morning just after six, puts on tefillin, has breakfast and goes to work at an import company, where he says he is treated very well, "just like anyone else." He also has a second job at Elwyn, a human services organization that serves the disabled and disadvantaged by providing career opportunities and other benefits. When he returns from work, he may play backgammon or snooker with one of the other residents. Although Goodman and his predecessors have done everything possible to give Beit Julia a non-institutional ambience, none of them could quite succeed. The offices, the communal dining room and other communal facilities are part and parcel of an institutional environment. Yet if he had the chance to live in a regular apartment without any institutional trappings, Katz says he would decline. "I wouldn't move out of here even if they gave me $50 million" he says. "This is my home. This is where my friends are. This is where I'm happy." His sister lives close by near Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, and she frequently visits him. His mother lives in Musrara. He has no ambivalent feelings regarding his mother. He understands that when she sent him away, it was because she had no choice. Racheli Cohen, 39, is the youngest resident at Beit Julia. The oldest resident is 80. Cohen suffers from juvenile diabetes and various dental problems for which she receives treatment. She would love to have implants, but that would endanger her health. She is extremely health conscious and will not eat anything that could in any way be detrimental to her health. "She's amazingly disciplined," says Mazor. Cohen occasionally goes home for Shabbat or holidays, but her parents can't cope with her illness and she therefore stays with them for only a day or two. She needs regular insulin shots, which her parents find difficult to administer. She has a sister living in Switzerland who barely makes contact with her - something that Cohen resents. What Cohen enjoys is schmoozing with Mazor. It is important to her to air whatever she has on her mind. He is not only a good listener but is also skillful in channeling the conversation. Even more than her conversations with him, Cohen likes to be with her soul mate Shmuel, who is a mute and 27 years her senior. Cohen arrived at Beit Julia during the Gulf War and found a haven where she could escape some of her fears. She was terrified of the gas mask, but the fear subsided somewhat when she saw that everyone else had one. Shmuel has been at Beit Julia since 1972. Although he and Cohen have a very close relationship, they do not share a room. They live in adjacent rooms on the same floor. She understands him and says that he understands her better than anyone else. Cohen, who works in the laundry room at Aleh in Romema, is afraid of public transportation and is also fearful of crossing the street. Shmuel, who works in Givat Shaul, accompanies her to her job, and then goes to his. They've worked out their own form of communication. Cohen has received several prizes for being an outstanding worker, which is a great source of pride for her and has built up her self-confidence. Her room, which has a private balcony, is full of little knick-knacks that she dusts lovingly. There are also a number of sequined collages on the walls - evidence of her artistic talent. "It's good for me to be here because I have people I can talk to," she says, "but best of all I have Shmuel. I love him very much." Each of the individual stories at Beit Julia is touching in one way or another, but none more so than that of Meir Heller, an Auschwitz survivor. Heller, who is wheelchair bound, was born in Czechoslovakia and was among the very young children transported to Auschwitz and subjected to the experiments of the notorious Dr. Mengele. Heller, who was six years old at the time, doesn't remember too much about that period other than the fact that he received a lot of injections and that he always felt sick afterwards. Miraculously, not only he but also his parents survived the war. His four siblings did not survive. His father went from place to place looking for his children until he found Meir in Auschwitz. The family went back to Czechoslovakia, but life was not the same as it had been before the war. In 1951 they made aliya. His parents opened a pastry shop in the Pat neighborhood. Though not altogether steady on his feet when he came to Israel, Heller could walk; but over the years and, to a large degree as a result of Mengele's experiments, he lost his mobility and had to rely on a wheelchair to get around. This did not prevent him from participating in Beit Julia's activities. Like Katz, he is one of the initial residents. What he likes best is therapeutic riding. He adores horses. The opportunity to ride regularly is, from his point of view, the best thing that could happen to him. He also enjoys the hydrotherapy that he gets afterwards. He is also fond of the weekly singing sessions and wouldn't miss them for anything. Until he was no longer able to work, Heller worked at Elwyn. The thought of not going out every day bothered him, and he suggested to Elwyn that it provide some kind of facility for its retirees. They thought it was a good idea and introduced new activities on the premises to stimulate the physical and mental processes of retirees. Thus Heller continues to go to Elwyn as he did before. When Beit Julia celebrates its 40th anniversary next Tuesday, the Open House will not be a rarity in honor of the occasion. "We keep Beit Julia open 24 hours around the clock, so that if any family member wants to visit or any resident feels the need to go to family, there will be no bureaucratic hassles to keep people in or out," says Goodman. "We try to give the residents as mainstream a lifestyle as possible. We take them on a five-day vacation once a year, and we take nature trips that are wheelchair accessible." There are 17 paid staff members working full- and part-time at Beit Julia, and Goodman always reminds them that they are guests. "The hostel is the home of its residents, and we are the visitors." Not everything runs as smoothly as he would like. This is to some extent due to the constant search for a proper balance between what has to be organized and what should be spontaneous. But on the whole, everyone gets along fine, and none of the residents feels like a social outcast. Today, there are three Akim hostels in Jerusalem and 16 apartments, each of which accommodates several residents. The fact that people are physically or mentally challenged doesn't mean that they cannot contribute to society. There have been dramatic changes at Akim and in social attitudes in the four decades since the Spighels realized their dream. If they were still alive, they would no doubt be very pleased to know that Beit Julia is no longer at the edge but in the center.