The eight members of the Shalva Band took the stage to perform during Eurovision’s second semifinal. The band had been on pace to represent Israel in the annual singing competition, but had to pull out because the rehearsal schedule conflicted with Shabbat. But Eurovision still wanted to feature the band, and offered them a chance to perform.
The band, which is comprised of members with various disabilities, played the song “A Million Dreams,” from the movie The Greatest Showman. By the end of the first line, fans were jumping out of their seats.
The story of how the Shalva Band ended up performing on the world stage stretches back decades, to Rabbi Kalman Samuels and his wife, Malki. Together, they started Shalva to help children with disabilities and their families, and on June 4, Bar-Ilan University awarded an honorary doctorate to Rabbi Samuels, to acknowledge the work that Shalva has done.
Rabbi Samuels was born and raised in Vancouver. He said his upbringing was typically Jewish, with a bar mitzvah and other cultural trappings, but not religious. In the summer of 1970, he was on his way to France to study, but first stopped in Israel to visit some relatives for a few weeks. He never left.
Rabbi Samuels remained in Israel, became religious and, seven years later, was ordained as a rabbi. In the meantime, he met Malki, married and had a son and daughter. His son, Yossi Samuels, received a faulty vaccine when he was 11 months old and lost his sight and hearing.
The Samuels struggled to communicate with Yossi and many of their friends suggested putting him in an institution. But Malki Samuels wouldn’t hear of it.
“She used to cry at night and say, ‘God, I’m never putting Yossi out of the house, but if you ever decide to help my Yossi, I’m going to dedicate my life to helping other mothers with their challenge children,’ ” Rabbi Samuels said.
When Yossi was eight, a teacher at a school for deaf children finally got through to him. From that initial breakthrough, he learned how to communicate with other people.
“Malki sat me down and said, ‘It’s payback time. I made a promise, I know exactly what I want to do,’ ” said Rabbi Samuels. Together, they created Shalva.
Shalva, which means “serenity,” started in a rented apartment and originally served eight children with disabilities. Over the years, it grew into a 220,000 square-foot, 12-storey campus that serves over 2,000 children and their approximately 10,000 family members.
Not only is the campus large, it’s also aesthetically pleasing and features state-of-the art facilities and programs, including the music program that eventually led to the Shalva Band.
Rabbi Samuels shared a story about a man he knew from New York who saw the beautiful building for the first time. The man entered and said, “Kalman, all this, for who?”
Rabbi Samuels explained that he’d seen the man’s local Jewish community centre, with its impressive architecture and facilities, and asked that man why it was important to invest so much money in the centre.
“He says, ‘Kalman, what are you talking about? It’s called quality of life.’ I said, ‘I want to ask you something: who told you that a young mother who wasn’t expecting a child with a disability not only has to cope with the challenges of that disability, she now has to forfeit her right to a quality life?’ ”
Rabbi Samuels appreciates that Bar-Ilan gave him the honorary degree, but doesn’t see it as a personal accolade.
“I view it as a recognition that the organization, for 30 years, has been doing very vital, valuable work for the State of Israel, for people who live here,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that I’m deeply appreciative for. But as they say, it belongs to the organization, it doesn’t belong to an individual.”