By Alanna Berman
Rabbi Kalman Samuels is not what you imagine when you think ‘rabbi.’ With no pulpit over which to preside, the Canadian-born Israeli calls “Shalva – The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel” home. The 18,000 square foot Shalva center serves 450 special needs children each year with after-school programs, therapy and even with an overnight component. The largest program of its kind in Israel, Shalva (“peace of mind” in Hebrew) gives families with special needs children just that.
“It’s the first program that has 160 kids a day, with more than 20 children sent to spend the night every day of the week,” says Rabbi Samuels, who is Shalva’s founder, “meaning that if a child goes to school on Monday morning and attends the after-school program through Shalva that night, then spends the night and goes to school the next day, that gives the family unit two full days to exist alone and work on the other relationships outside of the special needs child, and remain sane.”
Rabbi Samuels, whose second of seven children became blind and deaf after receiving a bad batch of a routine vaccine in Israel, knows this dynamic all too well.
“[Early on in Yossi’s life], people often remarked to my wife that she should move on with the rest of the family unit and put our son in a facility,” Rabbi Samuels says. “As a result, she often cried and asked God to help Yossi, and in return promised that she would do anything she could do to help others.”
At 8 years old, a deaf woman at Yossi’s school was able to finger spell five Hebrew letters into the palm of his hand, and he understood. She eventually taught him the 22 letters of the aleph bet, and two years later, he began to speak.
“It’s a feat I don’t understand even today,” Rabbi Samuels says, “And so my wife sat me down and said, ‘It’s time to fulfill my promise.’”
On a trip home to Vancouver, Rabbi Samuels connected with a friend who shared his vision and got $50,000 in seed money to start Shalva. What began as an after-school program has now grown to monumental proportions.
Malka Lilienthal, a mother of five, says the center has positively impacted the life of her youngest son, Roee, and helped to keep the rest of her family together.
“Roee has a doctor who says a family with a special needs child spends 90 percent of its time on that child, and the rest of the children — four in our case — have to vie for the remaining five percent,” Lilienthal says. “Shalva gave us that extra time to spend on the other kids, giving them special time of their own, while we knew that Roee was being taken care of and loved and happy at that same time.”
Children who attend Shalva’s after-school program receive therapy, play with other kids and eat dinner before returning home to their families in the evening (if they don’t spend the night). A therapeutic swimming pool, sound and sensation room, playground and music room are all on-site, enabling children to get the speech, occupational and physical therapy they need. But Shalva also cares for the families of special needs children in other ways, all at no cost.
“We have a ‘Me and My Mommy’ program that was set up more than a decade ago for mothers who just gave birth or who were told by their doctor that their baby was not developing properly, and of course are blown out of the water with this information,” Rabbi Samuels says. “My wife really wanted this program, because medical people can give you advice, but emotionally, they aren’t going to help that mother, so she wanted a program where every week 15 mothers could come together for five hours of therapy, meeting other mothers like them, and it has been successful beyond our wildest dreams.”
A rehabilitative daycare center was added to Shalva’s programming nearly two years ago, serving children from birth to age 3 in a six-day-a-week program from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Shalva’s summer camps and summer programs take care of children when school is not in session, and an advocacy component has been growing steadily over the last few years.
“We’ve gotten very heavily into advocacy, fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, changing perceptions and public prejudices in very sophisticated ways, and we are constantly working on breaking down stereotypes with these youngsters,” Rabbi Samuels says.
Five years ago, the Israeli government granted Shalva a plot of land on which to build a state of the art, 200,000-square-foot facility near the heart of the city of Sharsteret. About two years from completion, the new center will be able to house the hundreds of families who come to Shalva each year, but because of space and funding constraints, cannot get their children into programming. With a $4 million annual operating budget, of which Shalva receives $1.1 million from the Israeli government, fundraising for the new facility is key.
In November, Rabbi Samuels made a trip to San Diego to speak at the home of Ron Lifton, who learned of Shalva and its programs while planning to run in the Jerusalem Marathon. Through run4shalva.com, Lifton was able to raise enough funding to be sent to Israel to run the marathon as part of Team Shalva.
“Everybody was just so impressed with what you can do with a small piece of land, and all the programs and therapies going on actively in the center,” Lifton says of Shalva. “The operational aspect, the physical aspect of the center and then the children were all so impressive. The volunteers also make it a really happy place to go, which you wouldn’t think with all the disabled children, but there really is happiness on every floor.”
At the event held at Lifton’s home, Rabbi Samuels spoke about Shalva and its programs, the new center and the Jerusalem Marathon as a means of fundraising for special projects.
“We serve people from all backgrounds,” Samuels says. “Jews, non-Jews and everyone is accepted. It’s a loving background. Annually, we serve 450 children directly, but imagine when a kid sleeps over once a week every week, for a year. You are now impacting two parents, and the siblings, which gives them a respite and the quality of life to function, so we indirectly impact many more people. The figures are in the tens of thousands for how many people are indirectly impacted by the programs we have and the people we serve.”