Building Israel through hope and inclusion
At age 70, Israel is a symbol of hope for its own citizens and for its supporters worldwide. One of the primary sources of this hope is the Jewish state’s stellar global reputation as an innovator, which far outpaces the nation’s size and years.
Israel is often lauded for its breakthroughs in business, science and technology. Yet the country is also stronger than ever because of its leadership in an area that draws less attention: inclusion. For instance, the IDF places a high priority on integrating soldiers with disabilities, and the Knesset earlier this year unanimously approved a 50% increase in disability pensions. A society can reach its full potential only when it welcomes and empowers all of its members. Isn’t that the type of society you would want to be a part of? By recognizing that individuals with disabilities do have abilities, Israel is becoming its best self.
The importance of inclusion comes to mind as I reflect on receiving the 2018 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize at a wonderful Knesset ceremony on October 28. The prize recognizes the achievements of outstanding Anglo immigrants to Israel. The award’s name is translated from Hebrew as “builders of Israel.” Building is about creating possibilities and hope throughout a society, particularly for its most vulnerable members. I am humbled to have been part of that kind of building for the past 28 years. One family, one therapy session and one volunteer at a time, building an inclusive society is the mission of Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, the organization I co-founded with my wife Malki.
Shalva is a story of inspiration and opportunity born out of tragedy. My second son, Yossi, was injured at the age of 11 months by a faulty vaccination and was rendered blind, deaf and acutely hyperactive. After seven years with no communication, he experienced a breakthrough, learning to communicate through sign language in the palm of his hand and later, to speak. Remembering our desperate prayer from years before that if God would help Yossi, we would dedicate ourselves to helping others, Malki and I established Shalva in 1990.
What began as a small after-school program in a rented apartment has developed into round-the-clock programming for more than 2,000 individuals weekly at the Jerusalem-based, stateof-the-art Shalva National Center, which opened in 2016. Our comprehensive therapy and education programs are all free of charge and serve the entire spectrum of Israeli society regardless of religion, ethnicity, or socioeconomic standing. Shalva provides 313,970 hours of therapy as well as 39,500 hours of exercise and physical training annually; has 350 staff members, therapists, and special education professionals; and works with 73 Israeli national service volunteers.
Shalva offers infants, children, and adults with disabilities, as well as their parents, various programming and therapies. Programming includes rehabilitative day care, inclusive preschool, overnight and weekend respite, sports and hydrotherapy, summer camp, employment training and independent living opportunities.
Furthermore, Shalva promotes inclusion and reverse inclusion through innovative initiatives that provide a blueprint for the future of disability care. These programs include Café Shalva, a boutique culinary establishment that serves as a model for employment inclusion; the Shalva Band, comprised of musicians and vocal artists with disabilities who perform by invitation at cultural venues and dignitary events; the Shalva National Park for Inclusion, Jerusalem’s first inclusive outdoor play area open to the greater public; and more. In the past year, over 100,000 visitors from the general public visited Shalva and many government and private organizations held their own conferences and special events in Shalva’s facilities, thus creating a model for reverse inclusion.
Beyond offering these programs, Shalva is dedicated to elevating the standards of disability services in Israel and worldwide by collaborating with governmental, academic and cultural entities. A total of 5,300 people, including high-level representatives of governments and major organizations from abroad, visited the Shalva National Center as part of organized groups in 2017. Their sole purpose was to learn how to implement Shalva’s model in their countries and institutions.
Receiving the Bonei Zion Prize inspires me to not only continue but also to intensify
my efforts to build Israel by promoting hope and inclusion. Israel has come so far in a mere 70 years, but it will only continue to grow at this rate if all members of its society are valued and given the opportunity to contribute. That is the message of Shalva.
The writer, who made aliyah from Vancouver in 1970 as a university student, is the founder and president of Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. He is the recipient of the 2018 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in the community/nonprofit category.
BY RECOGNIZING that individuals with disabilities do have abilities, Israel is becoming its best self.