Mondays with Tal
chabad.org – Oct 16, 2011
By Esther Greenwald
In the Fall of 1997, I took my very first trip to Israel to begin a year of post-high school study at a seminary in Jerusalem. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was overcome by feelings of awe and disbelief. After years of dreaming about our wondrous Holy Land, I had finally arrived.
But my excitement was marred by uneasiness about the new experience’s many unknowns. After years of living in the same city and attending the same school, I was now enrolled in a new school with new classmates in a whole new world. I was also concerned that I might “waste” the amazing opportunity that I had been granted. I felt blessed to be spending a year of dedicated study in our homeland, and I wanted my family and friends to be proud of my growth and accomplishments. But most of all, I wanted to become someone that I could be proud of.
As I settled into my new home away from home, I learned that the seminary placed a special emphasis on chessed programming. Every Monday, students would volunteer at private homes, clinics, hospitals, and non-profit organizations of all kinds, assisting with anything and everything that was asked of them. Several years earlier, my sister had lent a hand to a needy family in Har Nof, and I contacted the family to see if I could be of any help. As it turned out, several other girls had already been assigned to the family and they did not need my assistance at home. However, they did have another project for me.
They requested that I spend my Mondays visiting their son in ALEH Jerusalem, a residential facility for children and young adults with severe physical and mental disabilities who require intensive and constant care and support. Though I had never been exposed to children with disabilities before, I was more than happy to honor their request.
My first visit to ALEH was surreal. Powerful feelings of love and warmth washed over me the moment I arrived. The corridors were abuzz with song and laughter. The atmosphere was electric.
Dovid, the child that I had come to see, was in a very bad state. I stroked his cheek, held his hand, and spoke to him for about an hour. He was unable respond and I began to feel frustrated, as though I had already failed him. I got up to leave, but before I could make it to the door, a hand grabbed my shirt. I turned to see who was holding me back. That’s when I met Tal.
Anyone who knows Tal loves him. You can’t help but smile every time you see him. Though he can’t speak, Tal always makes an effort to connect with people, to really listen to them and make it clear that he is listening (a trait that I have long sought to emulate). From the moment I met him, I knew that Tal was someone special. But I could never have imagined how our relationship would shape my life.
At that time, Tal was only seven years old. Communicating with his hands and facial expressions, he asked me who I was and what I was doing at ALEH. After speaking with Tal for several minutes, I was once again ready to leave. But Tal stopped me again, motioning that he wanted to escort me out. He raced his wheelchair to the entrance, bade me goodbye and waved until I was no longer in sight. I was touched by the experience and decided that I would return for regular weekly visits.
A few weeks later, Dovid was moved to a different facility, and I began spending all of my time with Tal. We grew very close and my visit with Tal became the highlight of my week.
The weeks and months flew by and my year abroad came to an end. I spent the summer with my family in the U.S. but returned to Israel in the Fall of 1998. Upon my return, I immediately reinstated my Monday visits with Tal.
Tal spotted me the moment I walked through the door and waved me over for a huge welcome back hug. He then started tugging at my purse. Not knowing what he wanted, I handed it to him. He stuck his hand inside and felt around until he finally pulled out a photo album that had been lent to me by a friend. The album contained pictures from her son’s Bar Mitzvah. She wanted me to look at a few specific pictures that included an older boy from her father’s yeshiva named Yishai whom she believed I should begin dating. Tal opened the album and began leafing through the pictures. He looked at each picture and studied the faces. His face lit up as though he had finally found what he was looking for when he saw a picture of Yishai. He excitedly pointed to the picture of Yishai and then to me. I asked him if he was trying to tell me something. He nodded and mimicked putting a ring on my finger. I asked him if he thought that I was going to marry this boy. He nodded vigorously and smiled from ear to ear. I wasn’t sure if I was even interested in Yishai at that point. But Tal knew better.
Several months later, Yishai and I were married, just as Tal predicted.
Soon after the wedding, Yishai and I moved out of Jerusalem, and it became difficult to visit Tal. Several more months passed, and I became pregnant with my first child. I really missed Tal and wanted to visit him to share the exciting news. When I arrived at ALEH, Tal once again saw me first and waved me over. Before I could speak, he pointed to my stomach and then stroked his chin as though he had a beard – his way of informing me that I would have a boy. I didn’t even know the gender of the baby at that point. But Tal did.
I carried to term and gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, just as Tal predicted.
With a newborn in the house, it became almost impossible to travel to Jerusalem to visit Tal. I missed him and kept hoping and praying for an opportunity that would bring us back to Jerusalem. As luck would have it, just such an opportunity arose a little over a year later, and we moved back to Jerusalem. I started visiting Tal again with big gaps in between visits.
The months and years rolled on, and I was blessed with two more children. Life had become very hectic, and I simply couldn’t find the time to visit Tal.
And then, last year, fate reunited us. My brother and his new bride decided to move to Israel and, as his big sister, it became my responsibility to purchase his furniture. When I realized that the furniture store was located just a few blocks from ALEH, I decided to set aside some time to visit Tal. Though quite a few years had passed, Tal didn’t miss a beat. He saw me first and waved me over for a huge welcome back hug. He asked me where my children were, and I promised him that I would bring them all to visit him soon.
As promised, I returned a few weeks later with my children and a special surprise: a photo album filled with pictures from our original Monday visits so many years ago. Tal was elated and studied each and every picture, smiling wider and brighter every time he turned a page.
Seeing as Tal had such a solid track record, I took the opportunity to ask his advice about an issue that was weighing on my mind. Yishai and I were trying to purchase a house but couldn’t decide how to proceed. Ideally, we wanted a house that was the perfect size for our family, but a house of that size seemed to be well beyond what we could afford – we would have to stretch our budget considerably to make it work. Our other option was to simply settle for a smaller house. Though it would be tight on space, we knew that we could afford it without doing irreparable damage to our finances. Tal recommended that we purchase a smaller house and simply add an extension when we had the means. I wasn’t sure whether or not this was actually an option or if such a house existed in our area. But Tal knew.
Later that week, a smaller house that we could afford came on the market and we jumped at the opportunity…because it was built in a way that would allow us to add an extension when we had the means, just as Tal suggested.
This past April, ALEH invited us to the organization’s first-ever Jerusalem march to increase public awareness of the disabled. A procession of over 300 marchers, including ALEH’s amazing kids, their families, caregivers, and volunteers and friends from around the globe, set out from the Jerusalem facility to cross over the Jerusalem Chords Bridge. My family proudly marched with Tal. I was deeply moved by the event, and I was happy to see that my whole family thoroughly enjoyed it as well.
As we headed home, I felt a sense of completeness and deep satisfaction in knowing that I had fused the two most salient parts of my life. Tal finally got to meet my whole family (as had been his wish for many years), and my family was fortunate enough to join those lucky few who know and, thus love, Tal.
While Tal’s sixth sense is truly unique, my experience at ALEH is not at all. Nearly every staff member and volunteer feels enriched by the time they spend with these earthly angels and blessed to make a connection with individuals who are so profoundly authentic, sincere and pure of spirit. As any volunteer can attest, the experience changes you from the inside out. You are forced to put down your guard, bare your soul, and strip away the layers of superficiality. Until you become someone that you can be proud of.
Esther Greenwald was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. She made Aliyah to Israel in 1999, and now lives with her husband and three children in Givat Ze’ev.