by Doron Almog
It was on Thursday, June 12, 2003 that we gathered in a white tent erected in the midst of a barren stretch of desert just south of Ofakim. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was there together with a group of children in wheelchairs who were surrounded by a diverse crowd of people from all across the stratum of Israel society.
Yair Lapid served as de facto master of ceremonies for the special event. Raising his arm above his head in a crooked manner, much like one of the disabled children sitting nearby in wheelchairs, he fired off a rhetorical question to those assembled: “Does anyone here know what it’s like to live every day of your life with your hand held above your head, like this?”
Following the laudatory opening remarks and speeches, the Prime Minister was invited to speak, and to place a symbolic cornerstone rock into a barrel that was placed in the center of the stage.
Thus ended the cornerstone laying ceremony for the establishment of ALEH Negev, a rehabilitative village unique in its scope both in Israel and worldwide, designed for severely disabled people whose only alternative until that point had been placement in hospitals or nursing homes.
Four years later, a year after the village opened its doors to my son Eran and another 10 residents like him, Eran passed away. In his memory, the name of the village that was his beloved home was changed to ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran.
I would like to highlight the following words from the remarks of Ariel Sharon at that ceremony, since they are as applicable today as they were then:
“Even in good times, the State of Israel cannot give the population of disabled children everything they need. All the more so, we cannot provide all that is needed during a time of financial crisis and budgetary cuts. Therefore, the work of organizations like ALEH is so important. They fill the void where government assistance is lacking, and they provide what is needed – with love, dedication and complete devotion. “
Eran, my beloved son, who never called me Abba and never made eye contact with me, was the greatest teacher of my life. He taught me the meaning of unconditional love. He taught me to hear the soundless cries of the hundreds of children like him. He taught me that the focus of our actions should not be the glorification of one’s ego. Rather, we should be focused on helping people like him.
They are as human as we are, but they lack the ability to advocate for themselves and even to function independently. Their entire existence stands as a test of our values and the essence of our humanity. They are here to make us into better people, to forge into our daily lives the axiom that “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” They are here to challenge us every day to strive towards “Tikun Olam,” humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world into a better place.
Today, ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran is a home for life to some 130 young adults with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Over 230 staffers and 120 volunteers dedicate their time and energy to the welfare of the residents.
In addition, the village offers services and outpatient care to thousands of people from Israel’s southern region, including rehabilitative treatments and therapies, dental care, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, communication and speech therapy, and much more.
Two kindergartens on premises integrate disabled children alongside their ‘regular’, non-disabled peers. Volunteer programs include rehabilitated prisoners, high school students who come weekly to work with their ‘adopted’ village residents on an individual basis, workers from hi-tech companies, high-level security officers, IDF soldiers and more. It is the only place in the world where tourists come to visit and learn how to care for the most vulnerable members of our society.
A visit to ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran is an incredible life lesson that shakes one out of complacency and gives a sense of perspective to everything we do.
As a graduate of the Reali School of Haifa, now celebrating its 100th year, I was asked by one of its students if I would change anything in the curriculum. I replied that I would convert one day of learning each week into a day of working with special needs children. They are the weakest yet purest of souls. While they are at the greatest disadvantage, they pave the way along obscured paths towards the healing of the world. If only we can learn how to listen to them, we would surly make the world a better place.
Major General (Res.) Doron Almog is the founder and Chairman of ALEH Negev – Nahalat Eran, a village named in memory of his son, that provides a continuum of residential care for children with severe disabilities as they grow from adolescents into young adults. Learn more about ALEH at aleh.org.