Paul Calvert talks with Dov Hirth from ALEH about the incredible work they are doing in Israel to help children and their families.
Paul: Dov, what is ALEH?
Dov: ALEH is an organisation that services children with severe disabilities in Israel. We have four residential facilities: Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Gedera and the Negev. We service on a daily basis over 750 children with severe disabilities form across the country.
Paul: When were you started and why were you started?
Dov: That’s a good question. The organisation was started well over 30 years ago. We started because there was a group of parents who wanted to give their children with severe disabilities a better chance, bigger potential, greater opportunities and those things did not exist in Israel. So they rented an apartment in the city of Bnei Brak, which is right near Tel Aviv; they hired a teacher and got a couple of volunteers and they started the organisation ALEH. ALEH in Hebrew is an acronym for aser, lyeled, hamiochad – helping the children that are special.
Paul: So it’s out of a difficult and frustrating situation that this organisation was birthed?
Dov: Yes, 100%. Thirty years ago there were not a lot of opportunities for children with disabilities. They were either in a hospital or in some sort of setting where they would be taken care of physically. But emotionally and psychologically trying to give them more opportunities, trying to advance them – those opportunities didn’t exist. Therefore there was a need and thank God these parents stepped up.
Paul: What sort of needs do the children have?
Dov: It varies. A lot of them unfortunately have genetic diseases; a lot of them have disabilities coupled with medical problems. Some of the children have Down syndrome with some brain impairment.
There are two types of children who come to the ALEH organisation. Either they were born that way, meaning there were some kind of complications during birth – something happened, they were lacking oxygen and were born that way. In the more unfortunate cases it was a normal healthy child and because of some sort of an accident, a road accident or slipping in the bathtub and being under water for too long, those types of situations, they also end up at ALEH under our care.
Paul: Do you have people from the religious community who intermarry within families and that causes a problem with disability as well?
Dov: Not that I’m aware of. I know that there are genetic diseases among Ashkenazi Jews in particular but I’m not familiar with all the ins and outs.
Paul: What projects, what sort of things do you do with the children?
Dov: Their day starts early in the morning, 7.30. Getting the kids up, getting them out of bed is a job in itself. Depending on which facility they’re in, our Jerusalem and Bnei Brak centres are for very low functioning children, our Negev and Gedera centres are for higher functioning but let’s use the Jerusalem centre as an example. Getting the kids out of bed, changing diapers, showering, brushing teeth – all this has to be done for them, it’s not something they can do on their own. Getting everyone into their classrooms and starting the day: breakfast, and so on.
Paul: Do the children go into a school program? Do you have to assess them beforehand to see where their abilities lie?
Dov: Basically the way it works is we have a special education school. It is run according to the standards of the Israeli Ministry of Education and Special Education but it is obviously on a very different level. The children are not put into classrooms based on age or gender; they are put into classrooms based on ability. Within each classroom the teacher has the incredible job of trying to give these kids the best opportunities for them to learn throughout the day.
In a typical classroom you will have 5 to 7 children; a teacher; a caregiver; an assistant and a volunteer or a national service girl. A national service girl is a girl who instead of going to the army, which is required here in Israel, volunteers their time in various organisations and institutions. They can volunteer in the Israel museum, at ALEH, at the Knesset. There are many places where they can do this. We are very fortunate to have a number of national service girls who come to the ALEH centres and help us tremendously. Back to what I was saying, in general you will have anywhere between 4 to 5 adults caring for 5 to 7 children in a classroom.
Paul: Is it like one big family when they’re all together in the classroom?
Dov: 100%. The organisation itself is one big family. One of the main things I want to stress is that ALEH is not a replacement for the parents. We are there to help the parents with their children. These kids can’t live at home, not because the parents don’t want them to live at home, but because of the severity of their disabilities and medical complications. It’s physically not possible for them to live at home. For example, for one of our residents in a typical apartment here in Israel where you have 5 rooms, they would have to reserve one full room just for his or her needs. And it would mean that somebody always has to be home. It hampers the ability of the family to continue.
A lot of the residents with us in ALEH have very healthy siblings and they are all part of the global ALEH family. We have support groups for the parents, for the siblings, for the grandparents. Anything and everything we do at the organisation the parents are made aware of. They have to sign off on any sort of changes – a change of medication, a change in a therapy. The parents are extremely involved on a day-to-day basis. If there is an accomplishment, if there is a cute photo that was captured, it’s sent to the parents. We have some parents that visit every single day; we have some that visit once a month; we have some that visit every three months. But in general the participation of the family is very, very strong and solid.
Paul: Are families often desperate for support?
Dov: Yes and no. It’s very difficult to take your child out of your home and put him into a facility that’s not your house. It’s a tremendous difficulty for the parents. God help all of us that we should not be in that situation. But when the parents are faced with that situation they really have to do a lot of soul searching and a lot of thinking and decide what is best for the child. One of the main things that we do is to give tremendous amounts of support to the parents – not financial support, because the child is at ALEH so they don’t need extra financial support. But we give emotional support, love and connection.
Just the other day I was at the ALEH Jerusalem centre and I was passing by the office of one of our social workers. So I popped my head in to say hi, how’re doing, how’s everything. She said I just hung up the phone with one of the families; their child passed on. I just want to tell you that three times a year, before the main holidays Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Sukkoth she calls all these families and she tells them that their child is not forgotten, even though they passed on because of their disabilities and medical conditions, he’s still a part of the ALEH family. We are still a major part of their life and it brings them a lot of comfort.
Paul: Does disability affect the whole family? Because the focus is on that disabled child, do some of the other children get left out in some ways?
Dov: Yes. It’s often the case when you have a child who requires a lot more attention and a lot more time; the other children “suffer.” It’s difficult for them and that’s another consideration for the family.
Paul: You’ve already said you have volunteers. Do you rely heavily on volunteers?
Dov: Our appreciation and gratitude towards the volunteers is above and beyond anything our words could possibly convey, we have volunteers from all walks of life. We have an international volunteer program, which you can check out on our website, www.ALEH.org. We have people from all over the world, from China, Russia, New York City. They come here for 3, 5 months or a year, we house them and provide them with pocket money and they dedicate the time that they’re here to these children. We also have local volunteers. These are seminary students or students that are in 11th, 12th grade. They help with the kids, not in the sense of therapy but in the sense of bringing joy and happiness.
There’s a beautiful group of young ladies who come every night to the ALEH Jerusalem centre, they go from bed to bed and they sit and say bedtime prayers with the children – in Hebrew it’s called the Shema. They sing to them and help them calm down so they can go to sleep. Then they go home. That’s their volunteering. They come every single night of the year, they go from room to room and it’s really beautiful. We have volunteers who come from high tech companies. They want to see how they can help, what they can do. We’ve had some really innovative ideas come from some of these individuals. These guys come and they help us in a lot of ways. In an average week, throughout the organisation, the four centres, we have thousands of volunteers helping us to help the kids.
Paul: Do you provide therapy for the kids and is that important for them?
Dov: Absolutely. Their entire day is based on different therapies – physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, creative arts therapy. Even within the special education school, which I mentioned briefly, there are therapies going on throughout the day. I’ve witnessed many lessons. So in an average class say you were teaching the Hebrew alphabet, the alef-bet, you would use a projector maybe or some toys. With these kids everything is sensory. I’ll use English as an example; so A is for apple, the teacher would walk around with an apple. Each child would touch the apple and she would say over and over ‘A is apple.’ ‘B’ is for a ball and she brings a ball. Everything is sensory.
Throughout the day you could walk into any typical classroom and you’ll have the teacher there with 5 or 6 of the kids and one of the kids is with a therapist, on the other side of the room, having occupational therapy. One of the things we strive for at ALEH is to give the kids anything and everything that they need to reach their fullest potential.
We do get government funding; often times it’s not enough for what the child needs so that’s where our generous donors come in. I’ll give you an example; we have a girl, her name is Sara. Our professional staff see that Sara would benefit greatly from hydrotherapy every day of the week. The government would pay for three days of the week and the rest of it would be fundraised. The cost for the parents to come to ALEH is zero. It is all covered by the government and our generous donors. The cost of living is very expensive in Israel and to have a child with disabilities is quite difficult. This is where the kindness of our government steps in and they say we understand your situation and you can put your child in a place where he or she can be helped and we’ll make sure you don’t have to work 5 jobs to cover the cost.
Paul: Obviously, a child is disabled so you’re not necessarily going to see a change in that disability but do you see a change over the years from the first time they came in to maybe the day they leave?
Dov: 1,000%, we’ve had children come to us who were not communicating. For us, that doesn’t mean sitting and having a conversation like we are now. Communicating means they are making eye contact and that when you are speaking to them, asking them a question they blink to indicate that they’re happy with what you’re saying or unhappy with what you’re saying. We have other kids who communicate by wiggling their tongue; that means they’re trying to tell us something. The staff have to learn the way each and every child communicates so they can understand them. We often use the eye tracking system quite. This is a device connected to a laptop or an iPad and the child can through eye movements communicate words and make sentences. It’s amazing. We have so many cases where the kids come in and they can’t feed themselves or walk by themselves and with our therapists and teachers and services at ALEH they’re walking on their own and feeding themselves, No, they’re not talking but they have a smile from ear to ear and a beautiful glow on their face.
One thing that I find extremely special: if you come to the ALEH centre and look in these kids’ eyes, you’ll see their eyes are very, very clear. My personal belief is they say the eyes are the windows to the soul and the souls of these children are so pure because they’ve never sinned in their life, never done anything wrong, the window to their soul is completely clear. And it’s a beautiful thing. These kids are super, super special and they’re the diamonds. They’re the reason that humanity has to push ourselves to become better people. These kids are a constant reminder. ALEH is not a sad place. We’re not walking round all day saying oh my gosh, look at him, look at her. It’s a happy place. It’s a home. And like any home, if you walk around our centres, there are pictures all over the walls of the children in various activities. We’re always having a good time. Afternoons are geared towards therapies but in a fun way; clown therapy, medical therapy, animal therapy. It works wonders.
Paul: Why do you do what you do?
Dov: I’ve been working for this organisation for 12 years. I consider it a privilege to come into work every single day. The kids are truly amazing. There’s a great feeling of accomplishment and of love when I’m able to assist them in some small way. Someone contacted me recently here in Jerusalem. She’s redoing her living room and she has a very nice couch. Would one of the centres be able to use it? That makes me feel amazing. Of course, go there, pick up the couch, bring it in and now the kids have a nice place to sit. One of the greatest feelings you can have as a fundraiser, as a person that’s out there trying to change and help is actually seeing that happen. When I walk into a building and I see the wheelchair that I helped provide, through my efforts, this child now has an electric wheelchair whereas before he had a manual. It’s a calling. It’s not easy work, that’s for sure, not for me personally and not for any of the staff, especially the staff that are hands on; the teachers, caregivers. They are there day in day out.
A couple of years ago we had a severe snowstorm here in Jerusalem, very rare, and the staff in the building at the time collectively said OK, the next shift is not going to be able to come in, and the next shift after that. They ended up staying in the building to be with the kids and to be on call for an entire weekend, without going home, without having their proper beds. Because it’s a calling, you really have to be a certain type of person to do it and we are blessed to have a large staff of those types.
Paul: Are you making a difference in the community?
Dov: Yes, 100%. One of the goals of ALEH is not only to help the children but also to change the outlook, the way that people see disability, to market and promote disability inclusion. We do it very well. A lot of things have changed in Israel because of ALEH. A lot of laws have changed, a lot of outlooks. We are not a home hidden away in a corner. We are a community home. Our doors are always open, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone from the community can come in. We constantly have community events that integrate the community and our population.
We have a beautiful program with middle school and high schoolers; it’s called tikkun olam. It means changing the world, fixing the world. On the tikkun olam program we start with the kids at a very young age, teaching them about disability and inclusion. They learn about it in the classrooms and then they actually come to the various centres and work with the kids hands on. We’ve seen tremendous success. The most beautiful thing that these teens have said to us is this guy is not my ‘case’, he’s my friend! I became friends with Baruch. I became friends with Sarah.
In our Negev facility we had an amazing innovation a number of years ago. We took a regular Ed kindergarten and we combined it with our special Ed kindergarten. Initially the parents’ response was ‘I don’t want my child learning there’. Now there’s a waiting list, fights between parents to get in because these parents see from the tiny little kindergarten aged children that these kids are growing up kinder, more understanding, more polite, more accepting. They’ll walk into a supermarket and see someone in a wheelchair and instead of shying away behind Mum’s skirt, they’ll run over and give the person a hug. The parents are seeing tremendous change and these are the things we are trying to do throughout the country.
Paul: Finally, what’s your prayer for the disabled children who come to your centre?
Dov: My prayer is that they should have peace. They should be happy, they should be healthy; they should feel and know that God is watching over them and they are God’s children, he showers his love onto them. And through us, the staff, the caregivers, everyone who is involved he’s showing them guys, I know you had to come down to this world in a certain situation but I love you, I’m here for you and I’m taking care of you. These are the kids that keep the world on that even keel of kindness, helping, hand in hand. I pray for the children of ALEH every single day that they should be happy, healthy and content and feel good in every possible way.
Paul: What’s your website again for people who would like to know more, perhaps even want to volunteer?
Dov: www.ALEH.org. If you’re in the UK it’s www.ALEH.org.uk. But through our main website you can get to any of our various country websites. We have centres only in Israel but we have volunteers from all over the world. Even if you just want to come and visit, if you’re in Israel drop me an email, just send it to info@ALEH.org, tell me you’re going to be here this and this day, you’d like to come and see firsthand, no problem. We thank you all for your time and for opening your hearts to our amazing organisation. And God bless.
Paul Calvert is from Carlisle in Cumbria working as a Journalist in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He is also a radio presenter with a documentary show.