Sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child, especially when that child has special needs. For that reason, the partnership between the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Aleh Negev has made a major impact in providing the care and treatment of the severely disabled population by creating a community in the southern part of Israel.
Through its Blueprint Negev initiative, the Jewish National Fund is working with Aleh, an organization that has, since 1982, provided children with disabilities throughout Israel with high-level medical and rehabilitative care to help them realize their full potential. JNF’s Blueprint Negev is a far-reaching plan to strengthen and build Israel’s Southern Region.
Sometimes it also takes a hero, someone who has experienced boundless love and painful loss, to champion the cause. So it is for Major General Doron Almog, who, along with his wife, Didi, a principal at the Yohana Jabotinsky Youth Town, was honored at the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Gala on Sunday, June 12, at the St. Regis Hotel Monarch Beach in Dana Point. Gala co-chairs were Liz Merage, Justice Sheila Prell Sonenshine and Molly Weinberg. Proceeds from the gala will benefit Aleh Negev.
“In most countries the severely disabled population is ignored, but Israel is leading the world in care for this population,” Almog said. Almog, the current chairman for Aleh Negev, should know. The state-of-the-art communal rehabilitation village located in Ofakim, specifically designed to accommodate children and young adults who suffer from severe cognitive disabilities, was started because of Eran, his son, who was its first resident.
“Our worry about who would manage our son’s life led us to create Aleh Negev,” Almog said. “Eran made me a better person, more sensitive to special needs. While we never had a conversation, when he was smiling, I knew he was happy. My son and the people like him are the purest people on the planet, and they need our help.”
As Almog said in eulogizing his son, “How did a boy who never spoke a single word bring about such powerful feelings and emotions, and are we capable of translating these emotions into a significant legacy?”
Almog is a military hero who played a key role in Operation Entebbe to free hostages in Uganda in 1976, Operation Moses in 1984-1985 to airlift 6,000 endangered Jews from Ethiopia to Israel and other major missions during his service in the IDF from 1969 to 2004. Still, he considers his biggest commitment to offer a future of hope for the weakest and most defenseless members of Israeli society – and his biggest challenge to continue it after the passing of his son in 2007. The village was renamed Aleh Negev Nahalat Eran is his memory.
Opened in 2006, Aleh Negev is home to more than 500 residential adults and will serve some 12,000 children and young adults with disabilities each year on an outpatient basis. Until now, many people with severe disabilities have grown up in hospitals, with no sense of home or societal framework. Modern and technologically advanced buildings house professional staff, residents and visiting relatives. The village also provides vocational training, occupational therapy and medical facilities for the entire southern region, including IDF soldiers requiring rehabilitation.
JNF’s fundraising supports and enhances this village by funding new therapeutic facilities, including a petting zoo and therapeutic horseback riding center. JNF is also lending its expertise in developing beautifully landscaped grounds, meticulously planned to stimulate the senses of residents through the scents of herb and flower gardens.
“People who use their power to protect the most powerless among us deserve the title of human being,” Almong said. “Once you bring a disabled child into the world, you need to treat that child with unconditional love and never be ashamed of him or her. Yet 60 percent of the parents don’t visit their children at Aleh Negev.”
While Almog is proud of Israel’s commitment to nurture the weakest people in its society, he acknowledged that much more needs to be done. “It’s part of Israel’s vision to create a better society, to have more consciousness, awareness and activity on behalf of special populations,” he said. “Aleh Negev is a role model for these populations, but we need ten more villages like this:”
Funding for Aleh Negev and other projects for the disabled comes from the government, operations, foundations and private donors. A similar project has been started in the Galilee, according to Almog.
“All of the people who live in Aleh Negev are getting better,” Almog said. “They’re smiling and have a better capacity to function, as well as a better quality of life. You can see the progress on each one of them.”
Almog’s greatest satisfaction is to witness that progress and the love between the Aleh Negev residents and their caregivers and staff. “It’s a treasure,” he said. “You can sense it all over.”
As a fitting testimonial to focusing on what people with disabilities can do, gala attendees were treated to a special musical performance by former Orange County resident Gloria Lenhoff. Lenhoff, a lyric soprano and accordionist who is also a Williams Syndrome musical savant, has a repertoire of over 2,000 pieces and has performed overseas and throughout the United States. She sings in 28 foreign languages and in a variety of styles. She first came upon the national scene during the PBS documentary Bravo Gloria, directed by Arlene Alda. In the past few years, Ms. Lenhoff has been featured on 60 Minutes, Nightline, and Insider Edition. She has performed with members of the L.A. Opera and the Boston Lyric Opera.
As Almog said, we need to continue struggling to maximize the quality of life for people unable to do it for themselves – and we must be optimistic.
For more information on JNF, Blueprint Negev and Aleh Negev, contact Adele Bilewitz, Jewish National Fund Regional Director, at (949) 260-0400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.