The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati
“Everyone knew Max, and everyone loved him. And I think that he would be proud to know that this is his legacy,” said Nina Paul while holding back tears. She was sharing the story about how she and her husband, Eddie Paul, helped create the Max Paul Volunteer Internship Program at ALEH Negev in Israel.
Nina said the decision to start the program came after what she called a “years-long nightmare”—after their son Max was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumor at the age of eight. “He was gorgeous and smart with an extraordinary personality when he was diagnosed with this one-in-a-million tumor. We had no time to research our options, and resection was needed immediately. That resection destroyed everything in its path, leaving us a different child.”
After a year at home, Max had to be hospitalized due to his erratic behavior. Nina said it was impossible for him to live at home, and she researched every rehabilitation facility in the country. “I found it so hard to believe there were so few that would accept a nine-year-old with a dual diagnosis: medical and behavioral.”
Max was sent to a few different facilities for months at a time before Nina and Eddie brought him back home. Max passed away in 2016 at the age of 21. “We did everything we could,” Nina said, and that is why she was overwhelmed with emotion when she discovered ALEH Negev.
ALEH Negev is a state-of-the-art rehabilitative village for the most severely disabled in Israel. “When I first saw it,” Nina said, “I wondered if we had a facility like this in Cincinnati, where Max would be today.” She said the appeal of ALEH Negev was the atmosphere and the beauty, but most importantly, the people and the care and services they provided. “Nobody was left in bed all day; they were out and about, doing things. There was a great connection to the community, and I said at that time that when we were able to, that’s where our energy and resources were going to go.”
Nina saw the number of volunteers from Europe, “and I got to thinking, why aren’t more Americans volunteering here? We were talking about ways that would allow Americans to get internships doing things they love, and that was the start of what was to become the Max Paul Volunteer Internship Program.”
Nina’s motto has been “unity in community,” and she said that unity is what it took to make her dream a reality. “When we decided to start this program, we realized Onward Israel is exactly the kind of program that would fit this need. So I approached the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, and then we brought in JVS Career Services, and we’re working with Jewish National Fund, which helps support ALEH Negev financially. Here we have all of these organizations working together. It’s been amazing to watch.”
Even though the program is starting here in Cincinnati, Onward Israel is a national program, which means students from around the country will have the chance to take part in the program. Interns and volunteers will work at the facility, earning real-world job experience, and eligible Jewish young adults in Cincinnati can use their Cincy Journeys Israel travel grant to take part in the program.
One of the reasons Nina wanted to partner with Cincy Journeys is because young adults can use their $5,000 Israel travel grant to help offset the cost of the program. “The exciting part is not only are the students learning and working, but they’re also getting to meet people from all around the world,” Nina said. “It’s an international program where everybody is going to be integrated. It’s going to be an amazing opportunity.”
Nina said not only is the program open to students applying for Onward Israel, but there are a variety of different volunteer opportunities available at ALEH Negev. “The program is growing, and it’s evolving. We’re creating something exciting.”
She said throughout all of this, the most rewarding part has been working together with the community. “I want to share my values with the rest of the community. Things can be much nicer when we work together for a common cause.” When asked what helped develop her positive outlook on life, she shared that her brother, who is 68 years old, was born with brain damage. “Because of that, I’ve always looked at the positive, to see the glass as always half full. And after Max’s surgery, I would tell my other two children to always look for what is good. And through this, they’ve gained, as I did growing up, empathy, sympathy, and sensitivity.”
Nina described Max as a chevrah-man: “he just loved meeting people; he loved talking to people; he loved just being that type of person. For him to know we are helping other people, he would have loved that. It’s a wonderful legacy. And a wonderful legacy for my other children as well. We are all very proud.”