Home Culture Books & Authors Shalva is an inspiring story of perseverance

Shalva is an inspiring story of perseverance

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Shalva, an amazing Israeli success story, is a leader in the field of disability care and inclusion. The Hebrew word for “tranquillity,” Shalva is also an acronym for shichrur la-mishpachah velayeled ha-mugbal (freedom for the family and for the disabled child), as it supports both disabled children and their families. After school, disabled children go to Shalva centres for treatments, activities and social interactions, thus giving them extra services while providing their families short respite from the challenge of dealing with a special needs child who requires near-constant attention.

Shalva became famous recently when the talented “Shalva Band” almost won the competition to represent Israel at the prestigious Eurovision Song Contest. But Shalva’s most important accomplishment is the day-to-day effect it has on Israeli families.

Rabbi Kalman Samuels’s book, Dreams Never Dreamed: A Mother’s Promise that Transformed her Son’s Breakthrough into a Beacon of Hope, tells the fascinating story of how he and his wife, Malki, created Shalva after dealing with their own disabled child, Yossi. Shalva came to life without any significant assistance from the Israeli government, simply through the Samuels’ impressive drive and sensitivity. The book goes into great detail (perhaps too much) about the challenges of fundraising for a multi-million-dollar project and the legal hurdles that the Samuels’ went through dealing with NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) neighbours. Rabbi Samuels and Malki Samuels’s strength of character and determination shine throughout. (Part of Shalva’s story was previously reported in this paper last June.)

The book also tells three other intriguing stories. The first is that of Rabbi Samuels’s life. Born Kerry Samuels in Vancouver, he grew up in a traditional but not religious Jewish home. In the summer of 1970, after graduating high school and finishing one year on a full scholarship at the University of British Columbia, he flew overseas with the intention of improving his French by living with a family in France, but he began with a short trip to Israel that transformed his life. A haredi Jew invited him home for Shabbat, and then everything changed for him. Rabbi Samuels describes his wrenching decision to drop the rest of his university education and throw in his lot with haredi Judaism. He studied in a few yeshivot, eventually earning rabbinic ordination.

The story of the couples’ second son, Yossi Samuels, who became seriously handicapped after receiving a tainted DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccination, is the next episode. Deaf and blind, Yossi also had serious neurological complications and was hyperactive. Rabbi Samuels recounts how he and his wife els and some very gifted educators dealt with Yossi’s problems. How he had to learn what words were and how they could be used for communication is thrilling reading. He advanced amazingly, learning to read, write and speak. Often referred to as the “Israeli Helen Keller,” Yossi Samuels is of superior intelligence and has a well-cultivated sense of humour. He has traveled the world, met with heads of state, and become a productive member of the work force.

The third story is of the Samuels’ court case in Israel, suing the government for damages for not withdrawing the tainted vaccine batch quickly enough. Rabbi Samuels writes that even after reports of infants damaged by the vaccine started to come in to the Ministry of Health, the vaccine “remained in use, with their knowledge for a further six months … Yossi, in fact, had been one of the last injected. Had responsible steps been taken in a timely manner, he and so many others would have been spared.” The lawsuit also named Connaught Laboratories in Canada, manufacturer of the tainted pertussis element of the vaccine. (Years later, Connaught withdrew its pertussis vaccine from the market after losing a number of lawsuits in the United States.)

The Israeli Ministry of Health went to great lengths to beat the lawsuit: instead of using the government’s own lawyers, they hired (at public expense) the best tort law firm in Israel. They used many stalling tactics in the hope that the Samuels’, who had limited resources, would give up. Many members of the Israeli medical establishment were also concerned that if the lawsuit succeeded, the country’s immunization program might be jeopardized. Medical experts called by the government argued that Yossi must have been born deaf and blind, and that the vaccine was not to blame. According to Rabbi Samuels, this collusion of the medical establishment with “Big Pharma” began years before the lawsuit, when Yossi was still a baby. “It was clear that an order had been issued by someone powerful and highly placed to conceal these vaccine-related injuries.” The expert medical witnesses called by the plaintiffs, the Samuels’, were “shunned by their (Israeli) medical colleagues for this ‘betrayal,’” but expert medical witnesses from abroad willingly testified on their behalf. The dramatic highlight of the trial was when Yossi  Samuels himself took the stand.

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I had trouble putting down Dreams Never Dreamed. Yossi Samuels’s efforts to live a meaningful life against terrible odds, and Rabbi Kalman and Malki Samuels’s effort to change the world to make this possible for him and to help other families in similar situations are very moving. Rabbi Samuels credits their success to divine intervention. It certainly is inspiring to learn how intelligent, determined and highly motivated people can take on a project and end up creating a new, more hopeful, reality.

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