OFAKIM, Israel — A society can best be judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. By that criteria, Israel gets a high score in terms of its compassionate care of the physically and mentally disabled.
Aleh Negev and the Tlalim Institute, two of the most advanced institutions of their kind, are on the front lines of dealing with this issue in Israel.
Aleh Negev, a rehabilitative village for the severely disabled, opened in 2006 on the outskirts of this development town of 24,000 in southern Israel.
Situated opposite a lush field of peppers, Aleh Negev is a link in a chain of Aleh residential facilities caring for children and adults suffering from medical conditions ranging from cerebral palsy to autism. Founded in 1982, Aleh also has branches in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Gedera.
Already partially operational, Aleh Negev is a complex of of dun-coloured buildings and beautifully landscaped grounds whose infrastructure was laid out by the Jewish National Fund.
Aleh Negev currently has 70 residents, said Sarah Herskowitz, a spokesperson. Once fully operational, it will provide 220 people with a home, schooling, employment, medical care and opportunities for social interaction.
It will also provide 12,000 outpatient services annually to the entire area.
Designed to create a safe and homey atmosphere for its residents, many of whom come from families that lack the financial means or the time to adequately look after their children, Aleh Negev is dedicated to helping them achieve a greater degree of independence.
Staffed by a cadre of professionals and caregivers who tend to their needs from morning to night, Aleh Negev has set new benchmarks in the field of special education, offering therapeutic treatments in occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech therapy, music therapy and so on.
As a result, it has attracted the attention of experts from around the world.
Yet a visitor unaccustomed to being in the presence of the physically and mentally disabled is struck by their plight. One sees residents in wheelchairs, their heads slumped sideways, their tongues sticking out, their arms curled inward. But elsewhere, hope springs eternal as a group of residents sit at a table and grapple with mental exercises.
The chair of Aleh Negev, Doron Almog, a general in the Israeli army reserves, is a man who has first-hand knowledge in coping with the disabled.
His late son, Eran, was severely handicapped, and during his brief life, he neither spoke nor ever stopped behaving like an infant.
Eran, who died at the age of 23, was named after Almog’s brother, who bled to death next to a burning tank during the Yom Kippur War. “I swore that I would never leave a bleeding soldier behind,” said Almog. “We all swore that we would never abandon our son Eran.”
“Eran lived at home until he was 13,” said Herskowitz. “At that point, the Almogs realized that, as Eran approached his teen years, he would need the intense stimulation and social environment that a specialized care facility could offer.”
He was placed in Aleh’s facility in Gedera, the first with a teen program. “I wanted to create [for him] a beautiful world, challenging yet surrounded and protected with the warmth of true love,” he explained.
“Doron was looking for a long-term solution,” said Herskowitz. “It would offer Eran and his friends a quality of life through adulthood, including residential living, work opportunities, paramedical services, social events and recreation appropriate for older children. In this context, Aleh Negev was born.”
Having been involved in Aleh Negev from its inception, he regards it as something of a template, a village that will create “a future of hope and will be a source of pride for humanity.”
The Tlalim Institute, a facility in nearby Dimona founded in 1975, resembles a kibbutz. A small park, built by the Jewish National Fund, adds to that bucolic impression, as does a colony of stray cats.
One hundred and sixteen caregivers, including doctors, nurses and social workers, attend to 234 mentally challenged adults from ages 20 to 76.
The residents are unusually outgoing and friendly. In child-like fashion, they are eager to shake your hand and ask for your name.
But one man, tall and gangly, was in an agitated state because he had not had visitors lately.
Residents regard visitors as crucially important, said the director, Nilli Ben-Dor, top left, who holds an MA degree in special education.
When elderly parents or siblings are no longer able or willing to keep in regular touch with them, she assigns “aunts,” or volunteers, to visit them.
But on this particular day, much to the distress of one of the residents, his “aunt” had not showed up.
Residents are kept busy in leisure time activities such as dancing and gardening.
If they need to be calmed down, they have access to two “snooze rooms.”
As on a kibbutz, they take their meals in a common dining hall.
About half of the residents work part of the day, placing candles in boxes and wrapping forks and knives in napkins. Seventy-five residents do not work, being immobile.
Two doctors and an equal number of nurses look after their routine medical problems. In case of serious ailments, they are sent to a hospital in Be’er Sheva. Dimona, a town of about 40,000 southeast of Be’er Sheva, has no hospital. “It’s a big problem,” said Ben-Dor.
Otherwise, the residents of the Tlalim Institute seem to lack nothing. As Ben-Dor said, “Israel takes good care of its disabled population.”