Israel’s blind-, deaf-focused Na Laga’at reopens post-Oct. 7, hopes to bring back crowds for theater, dining, events

Meaning 'please touch' in Hebrew, the cultural center features one of the world’s 12 pitch-black 'dark' restaurants

The executive director of the Na Laga’at Cultural Center, Oren Itzhaki, flips through the big white sheets of paper behind his desk that he uses as his calendar and where he hand-scribbles with colored magic markers his upcoming appointments, meetings and travel. He points out that even in these past difficult six months since Oct. 7, he has had plenty of trips abroad as nonprofits in countries ranging from Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia to Austria, Belgium and Germany continue to reach out to Na Laga’at (“Please touch,” in Hebrew) to learn about its holistic model of cultural integration for blind, deaf and deafblind people.

“Our goal is not to look inside to do good for blind and deaf people, but to work with blind and deaf people so they can make changes for everybody, for society,” said Itzhaki, who came to Na Laga’at eight years ago with what he calls a “business culture vision” as a social entrepreneur. “We get a lot of requests from abroad to teach about our type of work.”

Since its establishment in 2007 in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa Port, the cultural center, with its multifaceted model of inclusion for people with disabilities, has been home to the Na Laga’at Theater, the only theater in the world with professional deaf, blind and deafblind actors. The center also includes the Blackout restaurant, which is one of 12 “dark” restaurants in the world offering full gourmet meals served in complete darkness by wait staff who are either fully blind or visually impaired; it hosts Kapish Events, where guests communicate in sign language with waiters who are either deaf or hearing impaired; and offers a range of workshops in the workshop center either in darkness or full light led by deaf, blind or deafblind instructors.

At the end of this month, Itzhaki will travel to London for the Business Disability Forum’s Disability Smart Awards, where Na Laga’at is one of three finalists nominated for the Disability Smart Inclusive Workplace Experience Award. It is the only Israeli NGO to be recognized by the awards. 

Last November, the center also reached the final stage of the European Social Services Competition for 2023 of the European Social Networks organization held in Croatia. They were the only Israeli organization out of the 200 organizations that participated in the competition, qualifying for the finalist status in the category of support for employees and employment.

Representatives of NGOs from abroad have come to Israel to learn about Na Laga’at’s model and how they can implement it in their country. International organizations are also interested in learning about Na Laga’at’s business model, where 60% of its normal annual NIS 10 million ($2.68 million) budget is self-supported through sales of tickets for its different events, while the rest comes equally from state support and philanthropy, according to Itzhaki. All funding goes directly into creating more activities and workshops, he said.

Just as it was beginning to recover from the economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Na Laga’at lost almost 30% of its self-produced income for 2023 because of the war as people largely refrained from cultural activities. Their doors opened to the public at the end of March, and the organization is hopeful that people will begin returning to their activities.

Located in Jaffa, Na Laga’at is also committed to integration and innovation beyond people with disabilities, said Itzhaki. Among its 100 employees are Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, heterosexual and homosexual. Seventy of them have either sight or hearing disabilities — including its accessibility director, waitstaff, producers and cleaners. There is a certain synergy at the center, according to Itzhaki, with everyone supporting each other. “The magic of this combination is wonderful,” he said.

The Na Laga'at Cultural Center at the Jaffa Port in Tel Aviv.
The Na Laga’at Cultural Center at the Jaffa Port in Tel Aviv. (Courtes/Yonatan Meital/Na Laga’at)

The Na Laga’at acting troupe, which performs in Israel and abroad, includes a base of 27 actors who are either deaf, blind or deafblind, as well as actors without disabilities and sign language interpreters who are also actors. Currently five actors are working on a new original production to add to the theater’s repertoire of six plays, which includes its flagship production, “Not by Bread Alone,” produced with an all-deafblind cast using touch sign language.

It takes the theater almost a year to mount a production because of the intricacies involved working with deafblind, deaf and visually impaired actors.

When eJP visited last month, director and theater artistic director Efrat Steinlauf, who joined Na Laga’at 18 months ago, could be seen onstage discussing the use of a prop with deaf actor Yaroslav Bernatsky during a rehearsal of the new production. She is in the process of learning sign language and with the help of translator/actor Lolita Mirson she and Bernatsky come to an understanding about the scene.

Mirson notes that though there are still egos at play among the actors, as in any theater, it is much less at Na Laga’at because people are predisposed to help each other out.

Bernatsky, who came to Israel from Russia five years ago where he had been acting on stage since he was 7, said — with translation by Mirson — that performing in theater allowed him to tell a story through different characters, and to show that a hearing-impaired person can be a theater actor.

“The stage is a limited space, but it is not limiting,” he said. “I can express myself from the stage. This is a small space but it is a whole world.”

The lack of direct communication with the actors can make directing difficult, acknowledged Steinlauf, but working with different sensory abilities also creates the opportunity for artistic and theatrical language to benefit from different abilities and disabilities.

“Sign language by itself is very theatrical and it gives us the opportunity to use it as another visual language, not as something to overcome or ignore,” she said. “There are very talented and creative actors and when you give them the accessibility there are no limits.”

Indeed, there are no limitations, only limitations imposed by others, asserted Na Laga’at’s accessibility director, Mohamad Shaqqur, who is blind, as he led this slightly claustrophobic reporter through a pitch-black passage to a mini chocolate-tasting experience.

“There are solutions to all limitations. We need to be given the tools to be an equal part of society,” he said, his calm and comforting voice emanating from the depths of complete darkness, soothing away any sense of impending panic.

Itzhaki’s goal for the center is to help enable those with disabilities not to be solely dependent on government or institutional help, but for them to break through the glass ceiling and stigmas to integrate as fully productive members of society, he said.

Oren Itzhaki, executive director of Na Laga'at.
Oren Itzhaki, executive director of Na Laga’at. (Courtesy/Na Laga’at/Avishag Shaar Yashuv)

He also now has his sights on exporting the center’s combined cultural work model to other countries.

“I don’t want to close the community off but [to give them training] so they can do work outside, not just at Na Laga’at,” he said.

Over 1 million people have come through Na Laga’at’s doors since its inception and participated in its various activities, some tailored for children both with and without disabilities. A whole world opens up for children with disabilities when they discover that someone with a disability from Na Laga’at has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or participated in the Special Olympics, said Itzhaki.

“When children come and meet these people eye-to-eye it makes a difference. I think we manage to make an impact,” he said. “We are helping deaf and blind people, but we are also helping the audience expand and experience.”

Two years ago Na Laga’at opened the Center for Performing Arts Studies for deaf, blind and deafblind adult theater students in collaboration with Kibbutz Seminary College, which gives them the opportunity to take part in professional and accessible studies that enable integration into employment in the world of the stage. Initially a one-year program the performing arts center is now also offering advanced studies. With two different tracks — one for blind and the other or deaf — in June it will complete its second school year. Itzhaki is planning to open branches of the school in Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheva to allow more people with disabilities to study.

As with other of his initiatives he is also working with the Ministry of Culture to institute subsidies for the course and also implement incentives for schools to include people with disabilities.

“Before deaf or blind children couldn’t even dream of being actors because the door wasn’t opened for them. We want to open those doors,” he said. “When I go to [Israel’s national] HaBima Theater, why shouldn’t they use a blind actor to play a blind character?”