Jul 15, 2011 By Pamela Rutberg Greenwald

In truth, I didn’t choose special education. At the age of 16, special education chose me.

My nephew, Jeremy, was born with a congenital heart defect and was left with severe physical, cognitive, and neurological damage after a loss of oxygen to his brain during one of his many surgeries. I decided then that I would commit myself to making sure that Jeremy, and other children like him, would not just be cared for but would enjoy long, eventful lives.

Thirty-nineyears later, Jeremy is still going strong. And so is my desire to help these amazing children reach their fullest potentials.  If there is one thing I learned from Jeremy, it is that we must look beyond the awkward outer shell to the beautiful, pure soul within, a soul that can only radiate its light if we focus on what the child can do and minimize the list of those things that he or she cannot.

Since 1999, I have been privileged to work at the Jerusalem branch of ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.  Over the years, I have notice that, after working at ALEH for a while, the staff members and volunteers alike slowly shift from focusing on the children’s list of “can’ts” (which, initially, seems to encompass almost all normal functions and abilities) to celebrating the miraculous list of “cans.”

With the proper attention, coaching and encouragement, children who at first seemed unable to do anything on their own, can suddenly respond “yes” to questions, choose between objects or laugh at a joke. I call milestones like these “subtle miracles” because they can be missed by the untrained eye, though the skills they represent are monumental.

Many of these subtle miracles are taught or reinforced in my multi-sensory therapy room. The “Snoezelen,” as it’s called, was developed in Holland in the 1970’s and made its way to Israel approximately 30 years ago. The soothing and stimulating environment is fitted with a huge swing, a water mattress, several light machines, a vibrating bean bag chair, and a music system. The blend of sights, sounds, textures, aromas, and motion provide stimulation of the primary sensory systems and helps children who otherwise cannot be reached respond to the stimulation and advance their education and therapy goals.

Snoezelen treatments are given weekly on a one-on-one basis and are guided by specific goals that are decided upon each year by the team of teachers and therapists who work with the child. Goals can range from visual stimulation to gesturing to say “yes” or request “more” to improving head control, each subtle miracles in their own right.

And then there are the open miracles. These astonishing occurrences have transformed our primary care facility into a true rehabilitation center.

Dovid, a 12 year-old boy who has been using a walker for many years, gradually made the transition to walking while holding a staff member’s hand. This year, thanks to the classroom and physical therapy staff and a dedicated volunteer, he has progressed even further and is now able to take several steps independently.  Similarly, 18 year-old Yossi has transitioned from his walker to brief stints of independent walking.  Dovid and Yossi show no signs of slowing down – progress moves forward one step at a time.

At the age of 10, Sari, a healthy little girl, developed a brain tumor that left her blind in both eyes, deaf in one ear, and unable to walk or talk.  After making minimal progress at a rehabilitation facility, Sari transferred to ALEH at the age of 12.  Her severe behavioral issues – the real reason for her slow progress at the rehabilitation facility – led us to understand that Sari was fully aware of her plight and was severely and understandably depressed.  In just seven months, Sari’s amazing National Service Volunteer, together with her teachers, classroom staff, and psychologist, helped her emerge from her depression and make several unprecedented developmental leaps forward. She began to count, spell, and show us the answers to simple addition questions with her fingers.  In the months that followed, Sari said her own name, arranged her hair in a ponytail, began pulling herself up from the floor to her chair, and took a few independent steps. As far as Sari is concerned, the sky is the limit.

And that is quite a wake up call for the rest of us.

Though it has been years since special education chose me, I am thankful everyday that it did.  As much as I would like to think that I have left my mark on these wonderful children, it is more likely that I have gained the most form our relationships.  I now have a profound appreciation for every breath, step, and normal bodily function. I have witnessed true growth and the incomparable beauty of patience and perseverance in their rawest forms.  And I have been privileged to look beyond the awkward outer shells and gaze upon the beautiful, pure souls within.

Here’s to focusing on the “cans” in all of our lives.

Pamela Rutberg Greenwald grew up in Medford, went to high school in Brookline, and attended university in Pittsburgh, Cambridge, and Israel.  She made Aliyah to Israel in 1996 with her husband and three children.  For more information about ALEH, please visit

This article appeared on July 15, 2011 in The Jewish Advocate– a weekly newspaper serving Greater Boston and the New England area, and the oldest continuously-circulated English-language Jewish newspaper in the United States.


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