Aliyah with a Special Needs Child- Just do it?

This article was published in Building Blocks, The Special Needs Magazine, which is part of the Jewish Press

Making Aliyah

I always knew I wanted to make Aliyah. From age fourteen, I was already imagining my life in the Holy Land. I pictured everything coming together like a neatly set table where all the parts of my life would have a seat. Today, twelve years after my Aliyah, I have a beautiful family, a great job and Hebrew (more or less) figured out… But there’s one piece that still isn’t fitting perfectly. My mother making Aliyah with my special needs sister.

My sister Talya spent the first three years of her life in the ICU of Columbia Presbyterian in NYC, and after living in our home with 24/7 nursing care from ages 3-16, she moved to a group home in 2005. Now at age 31, she loves her warm and caring home in NY where she is happy and well taken cared for. My mother sees her numerous times a week and is very involved in every aspect of her life.

My mother has had the dream to make Aliyah for a long time; her heart is in the East. I desperately wish for her to be able to make Aliyah and live in the Holy Land with me and my family. However, my mother would never leave my sister behind.

I have done a lot of research about making Aliyah with a special needs child and although it is more complex than a non-special needs person making Aliyah, it is more doable today than ever before. Let me explain.

Until Now

In Israel we have “The Law of Return” which allows any Jew to come home and have citizenship in this country. Yet, part of the fine print of this law makes the process of making Aliyah with a special needs child or adult very difficult, but again, by no means is it impossible. When a special needs person makes Aliyah, the country tends to take its time with the process of what we call in Israel “Klita” (absorption). For the individual to receive all the services he or she may need (including, but not limited to: nursing, medical services, Day- Hab, a group home, transportation needs, therapies, etc.) he or she needs to go through a very thorough bureaucratic process.

Numerous parents have made Aliyah with their special needs child and where some have had a long dragged out waiting process to receive the funding they need, others hired “professionals” to cut through red tape and make the process go quicker. For the interim time between Aliyah and receiving services, parents have had a few options. They could either pay for their child’s services privately until the government covered the costs, but this was an expensive option because there was no insurance reimbursement until their child was “accepted” by the system. Or the parents could care for the child and wait until they are officially labeled as “recipients of benefits” and could receive services. However, both options were not very appealing to families seeking Aliyah. Some parents feared that because the intermediate time between making Aliyah and their child receiving their rights and funding for programming was unknown, they could not commit to caring for their child and therefore were unable to make Aliyah. This was especially daunting for parents of older age or for those who have children with significant physical needs.

Until now, it was a catch- 22. Parents didn’t want to make Aliyah until they knew that all the arrangements for their child’s care had been made. On the other hand, they couldn’t begin the process of applying for any services until after they had made Aliyah and their child was an official Israeli citizen living in Israel.

The fact is however, The National Security and other Ministries (Interior/Education/Absorption) must asses and decide what benefits the applicant is entitled to according to “how handicapped” or “needy” he/she is.

What Has Changed

The good news is, recently Nefesh B’Nefesh was able to address some of these problems associated with families with special needs children who want to make Aliyah. Nefesh B’Nefesh interceded on a bureaucratic level and now, when a special needs child wants to make Aliyah, they can start the process of filing for all their needs before actually being in Israel. If they are accepted by the Jewish Agency to make Aliyah, then soon after the entire application process is complete, they can begin the process of finding placement and services. This means that the ‘in-between’ months became significantly less time. This is an unbelievable achievement and can make all the difference in the world to someone like my mother.

What Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, founder, and CEO of Nefesh B’Nefesh, has done is a great achievement and if someone wants to make Aliyah with their special needs child they should know the challenges that past parents have faced until now has become a lot less challenging.

For more information on this achievement, please call Miriam Naiman at NBN. Miriam Naiman, a Post-Aliyah Advisor for NBN, has helped numerous families with special needs children make Aliyah. She focuses on the more critical challenges of helping Olim settle and integrate.

Speaking the Language

Language is also a major hurdle. It’s hard enough for a “typical” person to learn Hebrew when making Aliyah. So then how is a special needs child meant to be placed in Hebrew programming and expected to learn the language? Well, for one thing, it’s been done. As shocked as I was to learn this, I personally know a few cases where families made Aliyah with their special needs child and lo and behold- the child learned Hebrew! So the impossible is sometimes possible.

But there is also a category of special needs children that don’t communicate verbally and their communication is beyond words; the language of love is their main channel of communication. For those potential Olim, there is no language barrier because Israel does not lack love. One mother who made Aliyah from America with her special needs son a few years ago shared, “We were searching for a Jewish and observant environment for our son where he would be loved, cared for, and accepted for who he is. We thought the language would be the biggest challenge, but the language of love conquers all. Yes, there are challenges and difficulties but we are connected with people who are solution-oriented and have amazing positive attitudes. Come join us here… life is good for our son and for us!”

Then there is the third category which is where my sister falls into. For potential Olim that English programming is indeed necessary, their parents won’t make Aliyah unless they know their children will be in English speaking environments. For my sister, for example, and many other families I have spoken to, this is the real issue. I have been in touch with numerous people and organizations about starting English speaking group homes, Day-Hab programs and other programming. Recently, Yachad Israel started a day-hab program for English speakers in Jerusalem which is an incredible achievement, but it’s a small program for a specific “type” of Oleh.

There are other organizations that offer their programming with “English speaking staff”, such as Seeach Sod, a Charedei organization in Jerusalem, but then the parents are limiting their children to only having contact with the Anglo staff. I have also been in touch with organizations and certain individuals that want to start exclusive private English speaking group homes, which I hope one day will happen; maybe even in the near future.

I Have a Dream

I have a dream for my sister that she should be able to make Aliyah one day with my mother. Now that the “in-between stage” issue has been primarily solved, we are that much closer. I hope that she will be able to live in an English speaking group home and attend a day-hab for anglos. However, I also have a bigger dream that whatever the specific case is for a family who wants to make Aliyah with their special needs child, that it should be able to come into fruition without any more challenges than what a typical family has to face when making Aliyah.

Although all the questions don’t have answers yet, I would say there is a lot of hope and one day soon, I hope there will be a NBN flight filled with families who have special needs children…and I hope my mother and sister will be on that flight!

Sarah Nathan/Bechor has a M.Ed in special education, lives in Gush Etzion with her husband and two children. She is happy to receive emails with questions or requests for resources. Sarah can be reached at sarahnathanuh@gmail.com

About the Author
Sarah Bechor is a freelance writer in addition to her full-time job at United Hatzalah. She made Aliyah in 2007 and now lives with her husband and children in Gush Etzion.
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