The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine

A trailblaze­r for disability inclusion

This social visionary is behind the SHEKEL organizati­on that has transforme­d the field in Israel and several other countries

- R "#*("*- ,-&*/ -&*$)."/ CLARA KATZ FELDMAN

On September 1, Clara Katz Feldman will be honored at the Jerusalem Theater, as she retires from a 32-year term as CEO of SHEKEL, an Israeli organizati­on that spearheads inclusion for people with disabiliti­es into the community. Along with SHEKEL program participan­ts and their families, expected guests include SHEKEL’s president, Lihi Lapid, and Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs Meir Cohen. The evening’s lineup features a Koolulam mass singing event with Einat Sarouf and TV host Linoy Bar Geffen.

If Feldman’s parents were alive, they would kvell at this outpouring of appreciati­on for their only child’s extraordin­ary accomplish­ments – but they wouldn’t be surprised. The sole Holocaust survivors in each of their Hungarian families, they had high expectatio­ns for this daughter.

“Clara is my name because my mother’s sister and my father’s first wife were called Clara, and two aunts were also named Clara. All were murdered by the Nazis. My parents put in my name all their hopes” says Feldman. “They wanted me to succeed at everything. To see through me their lost Claras.” The family made aliyah from Romania in 1963. “When you come from a Communist country, you come with nothing,” Feldman says. “But my parents were amazing. They wanted to give me a good life and good chances in life.”

While her parents attended a residentia­l ulpan program, she was sent to the Mikveh Israel agricultur­al boarding school, where she quickly made friends. She went on to graduate from Bar-Ilan University with a BA in sociology and an MA in economics.

Before she turned 20, she married Tuvia Feldman, a fellow Romanian immigrant then studying at the Technion as part of the IDF’s Atuda program. The couple lived and taught at Yemin Orde Youth Village for three years, until Tuvia started his deferred military service. Then they moved to Givat Shmuel near Clara’s parents.

In 1990, while working as budgets director at the Ministry of Welfare and Labor, Feldman was asked to help dissolve SHEKEL, then a small organizati­on serving some 20 people. It had been establishe­d 11 years earlier by the ministry in partnershi­p with the JDC but was flounderin­g under the weight of a large deficit.

Feldman persuaded her superiors to build SHEKEL up instead of dissolving it, taking the lead in suggesting innovative ideas to salvage the organizati­on, whose name is an acronym for the Hebrew “inclusion for people with disabiliti­es.”

“I had seen the institutio­ns and programs of the Welfare Ministry. I had seen so many unhappy families. I dreamed of doing something that others had not done,” Feldman says.

In 1991, she began her tenure as CEO of an organizati­on that not only survived but thrived. Today, SHEKEL serves some 10,000 Israelis of all religions, with a broad range of intellectu­al and developmen­tal disabiliti­es, autism spectrum disorders, and mental-health and physical disabiliti­es.

The cornerston­e of SHEKEL’s approach is creating comprehens­ive inclusion in every area of life. That means providing a wide variety of housing models in communitie­s, including cities and kibbutzim, employment in Israel’s business sector, and enrichment and cultural inclusion.

There are SHEKEL clients participat­ing in an integrated orchestra with students from the Jerusalem School of Music and Dance; studying at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design; learning theater arts at Nissan Nativ; and working at Mobileye in kindergart­ens, hospitals, restaurant­s, shops and graphic art.

SHEKEL’s new prototype farm-based day centers for people with low-functionin­g autism broke new ground in Israel, connecting people with ASD to nature and the communitie­s around them.

“Inclusion also means accessibil­ity,” says Feldman. SHEKEL’s Israel Center for Accessibil­ity oversaw a major accessibil­ity upgrade of Israel’s Knesset, now one of the most accessible parliament­s in the world. The center also created accessibil­ity plans for the Old City of Jerusalem and for Jerusalem’s light rail system.

Another project close to her heart is SHEKEL’s Toni Eliashar Therapeuti­c Center. “People with disabiliti­es are more than four times more likely to experience sexual and other abuse than the rest of the community,” she explains.

Establishe­d 15 years ago, the center provides therapy for adults and children, as well as social and sexual education and guidance for profession­als and families. A second center was set up in Beersheba to serve the southern periphery.

“There are times that I close my eyes and I don’t

believe what we have accomplish­ed,” Feldman says.

“Everything I started had never happened before in Israel. Now we all realize it is very important for people with disabiliti­es to live in the community and be part of it. But this was a revolution­ary concept 32 years ago, when most of them were institutio­nalized.”

Not everyone liked these ideas at first, and she struggled to raise money. “We had no office, just me and two other workers. We almost lost everything because there was no budget, but we succeeded in the end. With the help of our wonderful and profession­al employees, we’ve changed the way of thinking in Israel.”

And not only in Israel. SHEKEL has trained profession­als in Russia, and from many European and Asian countries, often in cooperatio­n with Israeli government agencies and embassies, on the integratio­n of people with special needs.

Feldman has now turned over the reins to Offer Dahary, a psychologi­st with disabiliti­es, who served as Feldman’s deputy for several years. Feldman will continue in a voluntary capacity as chairman of SHEKEL’s board of trustees.

“I want to help the new CEO to raise money and change things that need changing, and implement new programs,” she explains. “Even if I’m no longer the CEO, I am still dreaming of new things we can do.”

She will continue volunteeri­ng with the elderly, as she has done for years, and looks forward to spending more time with her six grandchild­ren.

People often ask her why she chose to work in the disability field.

“I understand that maybe every Clara who didn’t survive could have been a doctor, an attorney or a social worker. I think subconscio­usly I understood that I needed to do something good for everyone,” she says. “And I have loved every moment of my work.”


 ?? (SHEKEL) ?? AT LEFT, with residents of the SHEKEL kibbutz apartment on Kibbutz Alumim.
(SHEKEL) AT LEFT, with residents of the SHEKEL kibbutz apartment on Kibbutz Alumim.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel