Thursday, February 25, 2016

North Americans with disabilities meet Israelis 'just like them,' and it's profound

Howard Blas (in the white shirt) meets soldiers with special-needs at the Palmachim Air Force base in Israel.
With him is IDF Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia, director of Special in Uniform. 

By Howard Blas 

In the Hebrew school of my youth, we took great pride in bringing a quarter each session to put in the blue and white JNF pushke. As Tu B’Shvat approached, we worked extra hard to raise money to plant trees in Israel. On our Hebrew high school trip to Israel, we took pride in actually planting trees with our own hands. 

Fast forward more than 30 years, and I find myself blessed to share my love of Israel with young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Every two years, my colleagues at the Ramah Israel Institute and I organize an Israel trip for a group of participants in the Tikvah special-needs programs from our various Ramah camps in the United States and Canada. On these trips, we learn and experience so much. One thing we have learned is that JNF is still actively involved in planting trees and dealing with Israel’s water resources, while also creating great programs to make sure people with disabilities are included in all aspects of Israeli society. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Volunteering with Israel's disabled brings tears -- both of amazement and frustration

LOTEM volunteer Rachel Waldman, the author of this post (right) with a LOTEM participant. 

By Rachel Waldman

Having spent many summers in Israel, I have profound memories of the people, the culture, and the land. Who can't help but fall in love with the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, the white sand by the Dead Sea. The rolling hills and lush green fields in the north. The land of Israel is as much a part of daily life there as the people, the culture, and the history. 
Hiking in beautiful Israel -- the quintessential experience. 

That is why LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible plays such an integral role in creating an inclusive environment for all members of Israeli society. LOTEM makes nature accessible to everyone, including those who otherwise wouldn't be able to engage with the land that so many of us love. 

According to a 2014 study by the Myers-JDC Brookdale Institute, about 20 percent of Israelis have some kind of special need. That means that one-fifth of the population does not have the ability to fully connect with nature and the land in the way so many others do. Their families, as well, are limited in where they can go and what they can do. Do you bring the rest of your family on a hike if you have one child in a wheelchair? One child who is blind? One child who will struggle with a walker? Before LOTEM was created, this 20 percent of the population and their families were missing out on one of the most significant parts of Israel: the land. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Visiting an Israeli facility for the disabled changed my family forever

Robin Dermer and her husband, record producer and cantorial soloist Lawrence Dermer (pictured right), performed 
for Aleh Negev residents in 2007, along with the Dermer children. 

By Robin Dermer 

Our daughter was born with an underlying neuromuscular disorder. By the time she was 7, her club feet were corrected, her muscle tone was improving substantially, and I took my family to Israel for healing, closure, a thank-you-to-god for helping us through her very difficult beginning. It was important for me to set an example for my older sons of how blessed we were to have the resources, care, and services for our daughter in her early years. 

One of the visits on the trip was to Aleh Negev, a rehabilitative facility for the severely disabled, to show our kids what it was like for children with special needs in Israel. I chose Aleh because it was founded on an underlying belief that mirrored my own -- a focus on potential rather than disability. The mere existence of Aleh exemplified that against all odds everything is possible. If you can envision something you can create it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nine years without Eran: A dad's deeply moving eulogy for his disabled son

It's been nine years since Major General Doron Almog's beloved son Eran died at age 23. To mark that occasion, Almog delivered the following words at his son's gravesite in Israel last week. Almog and his wife Didi established Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran in their son's name to provide high-level medical and rehabilitative care to severely disabled adults and children. JNF is an Aleh Negev partner. 

Doron Almog and his son, Eran, who passed away in 2007. 

When you were born, we called you Eran -- for my brother Eran, who never came back from the war, who lay bleeding for a week near his burning tank before his lifeless body was rescued and brought home.

When you were just 8 months old, our dream -- the dream of parents everywhere -- was shattered. The psychologist at Assaf HaRofeh Hospital diagnosed you as suffering with autism combined with intellectual disability.  Apparently you would remain as you were that day, a baby several months of age, for as long as you lived, and you would most probably never learn to speak.

She was right. During all your 23 years, you never spoke one word. You never called me abba. And yet, despite this, you were to become the greatest teacher of my life. Your silent scream pierced through my soul, penetrating every fiber of my being with an endless discourse about the place of children and people just like you in an achievement-oriented society, one that measures a person’s worth by the yardstick of ability and skill.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

JNF's Jewish Disabilities Action Month: 'Because awareness isn't enough'

While February is known as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Jewish National Fund is rebranding it as an "action month" to ensure that everyone, regardless of individual challenges, is able to feel that they are supported and belong.

Nearly one in five people in the U.S. and one in eight in Israel live with a disability. JNF and its partners work daily to help children and adults in Israel who have physical, sensory, mental health, and intellectual disabilities enjoy a better quality of life.

JNF partners include Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible, Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit, and Special in Uniform, which integrates those with disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces. In addition, the new JNF Task Force on Disabilities has been created to bring partner organizations together to share resources and meet the needs of those with disabilities in Israel's north and south, where there are typically fewer services available.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

An inclusive society is a better society: How Israel weaves the disabled into its fabric

Throughout February, to mark Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we'll be featuring stories about special needs and inclusion in Israel. Look for them on this blog, as well as on JNF's main Facebook page, its Humans of JNF Facebook page, and Instagram.  

Photo: Miriam Braun
Evan Samuels, one of the special-needs workers at 
Kishor Winery. 
By Noah Alhadeff

From Eilat to the Golan Heights, there are dozens of wineries in Israel. Each one operates pretty much the same as the next: Seeds are planted, grapes are grown, grapes get mashed, juice gets aged, and wine gets bottled. But at Kishor Winery in Israel's north, something, well, special is happening. 

Along the wine-making timeline you’ll see adults with special needs pitching in to do things like prune the grapevines and work in the bottling warehouse. Their disabilities range from the behavioral to the physical and mental, but one thing remains constant. They're being included just like everyone else.

In a country where nearly one in five adults has some form of disability, according to the Myers-JDC Brookdale Institute, it's not hard to find organizations that make true disability inclusion their imperative. Kibbutz Kishorit, where the Kishor Winery is located, is just one of them. "Each member contributes to the community according to his ability and takes from the community according to his need," the kibbutz says.