National Post – Apr 26, 2013
By Laura Rosen Cohen
Hidden at the end of a small bumpy road, tucked away a few minutes from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, is a non-descript building, several stories high, constructed with the pale limestone known in this city as “Jerusalem stone.” Unexceptional in every external way, it nonetheless contains one of the most exceptional and bittersweet oases of coexistence in Israel, and perhaps the entire Middle East.
Cynics often joke that street crime is the only area in which Jews and Palestinians work together harmoniously. But here in this building, it actually is the project of caring for fragile children that is helping people overcome nationalistic and religious differences. Within these walls, the two groups dedicate themselves to bringing comfort and meaning to the most disabled young people on both sides of Israeli-Palestinian divide.
The ALEH organization was founded by an Israeli army officer, Major General (res.) Doron Almog. His military CV is unquestionably one of a modern Macabee. From the famed Entebee raid in 1976, to strikes on the terrorists who murdered Israeli Olympians in Munich, to dangerous missions in Lebanon, and participating in the airlift rescue of Ethiopian Jews, Almog has a Jewish fighting spirit. Yet, his experience having a son (who recently passed away) with multiple disabilities inspired him to establish a place where young people with exceptionally complex medical and cognitive challenges could be safe and thrive, regardless of their religion, nationality, background or socio-economic status. The warrior with the heart of gold made it his life’s goal to improve the lives of the disabled young.
In the group’s small building in Jerusalem, my companions and I witnessed the remarkable. We watched North American-born teachers, Ethiopian-born teaching assistants, native Israeli staff members, and American student volunteers help severely disabled young people from an incredible range of backgrounds and exceptionalities with their schooling and the tasks of everyday living.
We went in order to have a modest “twinning” Bar Mitzvah celebration for my special-needs son, and for another special-needs child at ALEH who also was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. We didn’t really know what to expect, but were greeted with open arms. We were teamed up with a few other donors in order to collectively purchase an iPad for the use of the many non-verbal children at the facility, who can use special apps on these devices to communicate.
As we found out, religious ceremonies for cognitively and physically disabled individuals are challenging events to plan, and have to be accommodated in numerous ways. But we were determined to mark our son’s Bar Mitzvah with joy and love.
And so, in a small sunlit Jerusalem classroom among wheelchairs, and feeding tubes, oxygen monitors and adapted chairs and desks, we raised a prayer shawl, and said blessings together, which were modified to the children’s ability to communicate. They were read from a hand-made prayer book with large images and print.
Then we watched as volunteers played rousing Klezmer music for all the Jewish and Muslim children and staff, the religious and the secular, the immigrants and the native-born. The kids in wheelchairs were pushed around, the ones who could stand danced, and we held back tears as a young man in a wheelchair, his speech just barely comprehensible to most ears, sang to our kids and blessed them.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians often seems unattainable. But a genuine and fragile bond between nations does exist, in one of the most unexpected corners of Jerusalem, for those who take the time to look.
Laura Rosen Cohen is a Toronto-based writer (when she’s not in Jerusalem) who blogs at www.endofyourarm.com