A namesake not in vain

A namesake not in vain

Friday, March 28th, 2014


Jerusalem Post – Mar 28, 2014
By Abigail Klein Leichman

When a son was born to Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and his wife, Didi, in 1984, there was no question the boy would be named for Almog’s brother Eran Avrutsky – a tank commander who died during the Yom Kippur War while waiting a week to be evacuated from where he was wounded in combat.

The newborn Eran, his parents hoped, would compensate for a life cut tragically short. But it was not to be. The baby was profoundly disabled, lacking fibers to connect the two halves of his brain. He learned to walk, but not to speak.

Almog was determined that his brother’s namesake would not be left in the field to die. And despite the overwhelming intensity of caring for the boy for the 23 years of his life, Almog took on this mission for the disabled children of others as well, through his chairmanship of ALEH Negev.

A residential medical and rehabilitative care facility just west of Ofakim, ALEH Negev is part of Israel’s largest network of residences for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Unlike the other ALEH sites in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Gedera, however, the Negev facility was designed for people of all ages – the current oldest resident is 52.

Eran was the first person to move into ALEH Negev when the construction was completed in January 2006. After his death a year and a month later, its name was amended to ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran.

The innovative rehabilitative village, built with a 250-person capacity, now houses 140 residents, most of them in assisted-living homes and the rest in a hospital unit. About 12,000 outpatient treatments also are provided every year.

The complex includes a vocational workshop center, hydrotherapy pool, petting zoo, horseback riding track, special-needs dental clinic and therapeutic gardens. ALEH preschoolers interact with able-bodied Jewish and Bedouin peers from the surrounding towns in an integrated kindergarten on the campus.

The full cost of care, room and board is fully subsidized. About 80 percent of the NIS 30 million annual operating budget comes from the Israeli government and the rest from donations, foundations and strategic partners including the Jewish National Fund of the United States.

Almog says ALEH Negev is still growing. “Our next projects will be a rehabilitation hospital, a research and education center and a residential neighborhood for our 500 staff members and other good families that will move to the Negev, not necessarily working in our village but having the potential to join us. We need good community nearby,” says the retired general in an interview at ALEH Jerusalem.

The Almogs were aware of ALEH’s Bnei Brak center during Eran’s childhood, but did not feel it would be the right fit, as they are not religious and live in Rishon Letzion. Eran lived at home with his parents and older sister, Nitzan, until he was 13.

Almog – a veteran of four wars, Operation Entebbe and Operation Moses, and head of the IDF Southern Command from 2000 to 2003 — credits his wife and in-laws with shouldering the bulk of the burden. But he was an extraordinarily involved father, one of whose tasks was taking Eran for frequent medical treatments since Didi could not bear seeing her son suffer.

“It was an unbelievable daily mission trying to lead him forward and bring a smile to his face,” Almog says.

When Eran was 13, a social worker proposed that they look into a new ALEH center in Gedera. ALEH Director General Yehuda Marmorstein interviewed the Almogs, and a month later Eran was accepted. “For us, it was like being told our son was accepted to the Technion or to Harvard,” he recalls.

Eran spent nine good years in Gedera. At Marmorstein’s request, Almog raised funds for a new building for ambulatory residents. They named it Beit Eran in memory of the fallen soldier-uncle.

Like all special-needs children, Eran’s educational benefits terminated when he turned 21. Rather than seek a hostel or take him home, the Almogs preferred to keep Eran in the ALEH system where they knew he’d be taken care of when they were no longer around.

“We visualized a village for the full lifespan of children like Eran, and we started planning it in 2000,” says Almog. “We thought he would outlive us and we wanted to guarantee his future, that he’d be kissed every night and be enveloped by love.”

ALEH Negev, the only facility of its kind in Israel, is built on 25 acres donated by the Israel Lands Administration, and the project was overseen by the Southern Development Authority. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke at the groundbreaking in June 2003, at which then-media personality Yair Lapid served as master of ceremonies.

Eran moved in two and a half years later.

“The first few weeks, we took him home almost every night to make a more gentle transition,” recalls Almog, who is seen in a promotional video lovingly interacting with his son in the hydrotherapy pool. “After that, he pulled away when I tried to get him into my jeep. He refused to leave his friends in the village.”

ALEH Negev has about 150 volunteers, including local high school students and workers from area industries including the Dimona Nuclear Center. Every week, there are visits from IDF officers and battalion commanders, and from busloads of foreign tourists.

Most notably, about 40 prisoners are escorted to ALEH Negev to volunteer with residents one on one. Almog says the experience deeply moves the felons. “They realize they cheated or deceived people, got caught and sentenced, while the pure souls at ALEH never hurt anyone but were punished by having a body that is a jail. It gives them an opportunity to make a small tikkun [rectification] by assisting these pure souls.”

In 2011, this program won the Israel Prison Service an Offender Management and Reintegration Award from the International Corrections and Prisons Association.

“ALEH Negev is, above all, an inspirational model of treating others,” says Almog. “I believe it will make Israeli society better.”

Because of his experience with the facility’s Beduin Arab staff members and residents, Almog was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu two years ago to direct the Headquarters for the Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin.

“We have about 210,000 Beduin in the Negev,” he explains. “We are trying to set a better life standard for them, to maximize their human potential together with them. It’s a huge, emotionally complex issue for the Jews and for the Beduin themselves.”

Almog says his compassionate work was inspired by his late son, to whom he refers as his “professor.”

“The first lesson he taught me was about love. I used to think love was about desire for a woman. But actually it’s a commitment – a commitment to someone who is fully dependent on your power and your health, your good will and your daily actions,” states Almog.

“The second lesson was about ego. When you’re proud of your child, you’re really proud of yourself. If you have a child diagnosed with a severe disability, it’s a broken dream for the father and mother, and there is much shame. Shame and pride come from the same point.”

He and his wife initially had a long debate about if and how to go on, and ultimately chose life. Almog shows a photo Eran on Independence Day in 2006, grinning as he holds an Israeli flag aloft.

“That picture of Eran smiling with the flag shows how Didi and I reshaped our lives and expectations. We had our older daughter, Nitzan, and we had our families, so we had to face the question of how to continue to manage our lives and do good things for children like our son, who cannot even say ‘thank you’ or ‘please change my diaper.’”

In the photograph, Eran is also holding a videocassette. His father explains that this is “Dig Dig Dog,” an Israeli children’s show that Eran watched obsessively for years.

After his son died less than a year after that picture was snapped – ironically, from an unrelated and rare illness called Castleman’s disease — nobody would have blamed Almog if he’d walked away from ALEH. But he didn’t.

“I felt strongly that Eran would have told us, ‘There are more children like me, so please take the lead and continue building the village for them.’”

Eran’s sister also heard this calling. She earned her doctorate in disabilities and today lectures at Bar-Ilan University in addition to working with a foundation for the handicapped and raising three children with her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair as the result of injuries suffered in a biking accident.

“Why did God bring children like Eran into the world?” Almog reflects. “The only answer I can give myself is that it is to make you, the normal one, build a better society for those who cannot manage their lives on their own. ALEH Negev is a combination of a first-class place for this population and a reflection of tikkun olam performed by many people.”


SIDEBAR

Maj. Gen. Doron Almog released this tribute on January 21, 2014.

Seven years without Eran

Our beloved Eran. Seven years without you. A prince of purity. My enigmatic child. A young adult who will always remain an innocent child, who never complains about anything, and never utters a cry. Today you would have been 30 years old, an uncle to Yali, Ori, and Karni, who never even knew you. For them too, you will remain an enigma and a charge to create tikkun olam, bringing the world to its perfection.

Every week, when I visit the village that bears your name, I gaze at the picture of you from Yom Ha’atzma’ut 2006: a 22-year-old youth clutching a “Dig Dig Dog” cassette from the age of three, a broad, toothy smile, and an Israeli flag waving above.  You smiled about things that brought you joy, but we never knew their source or explanation. When I was 30 years old, I was already the battle-weary commander of a parachute troop, and father of Nitzan, your older sister. You refused to follow the path taken by most children. You chose to remain aloof and distant, and almost always you could be seen with the “Dig Dig Dog” cassette in hand.  It was as if you tread an invisible course that most ordinary children never set foot on. You took us on mysterious paths, full of pitfalls and challenges, but you also gave us a marvelous compass to help us navigate our way through the obstacle course. A compass that had only word written on it. Love. And then, later on, one small sentence: “Love your fellowman as yourself.”

And I, who knew many wars in my lifetime, found myself embroiled in a new battle, the most terrible and difficult of them all. A battle to legitimize the place of children like you in the world, a battle to break down thick walls of prejudice and stereotypes. A battle to achieve social justice and a future filled with hope for children like you, and in fact, for all of us. A battle to change the face of society. The longer your silence stretched out, the more power you gave me.

And in moments of pain, frustration, and confusion, I found myself embracing the marvelous compass you entrusted with me and continuing to make my way forward, to earn one more hug from you, my beloved son Eran.

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