Israel is Woefully Behind in Supporting Special Needs

Many people often ask me why I don’t move back to Israel.

I love Israel.  I love the climate, the lifestyle (at least the Tel Aviv lifestyle), I love the nature, I love the food and the wine (well, okay, I still drank Italian, Australian or American wine more than Israeli wines).  I love the work hard and play hard attitude.  I love that although people do work very hard in Israel, it is the little pleasures of life that make most Israelis eyes light up.

I especially loved Fridays in Israel, a day with a special feeling uniquely Israeli and wonderful.  Busy mornings, the hustle bustle of errands and a quick coffee on the beach as I would unwrap warm pastries just bought from the bakery.  Later on, I’d meet up with friends for coffee to read the paper and wile away the afternoon.  I used to especially love the walk home from Sheinkin, Basel Street or Neve Tzedek, whereever I happened to be, with the smells of cholent, roasted chicken and soups wafting out of the open windows and doors of hundreds of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus buildings, both beautiful and ugly at the same time.  The sounds of  televisions with their volumes turned up too high combined with mothers shooing their children away gave me a sense of calm and comfort that just made life very, very good.

Israel is so much more than that, much more than my pathetic words can capture.  It is where I found my independence, where, after a very difficult time,  I pulled myself up all on my own.

While I love many things about the United States and it will always be home in a way that no place else can ever be, and I like my life in the Netherlands because this is where my family and therefore where my home and heart reside.  If I had absolutely nothing else to consider, I’d go back to Israel in a heartbeat.

But, I have other things to consider.  I have a daughter with autism.

From everything I have read about or heard from friends who also have children with special needs, Israel is a nightmare.  To even get services you have to go through a horrible bureaucratic nightmare, telling your story over and over and over, each time being told that you are not at the right place (well, actually that’s not unique to special needs, that is Israeli bureaucracy).  Israel is quick with meds and slow on services.  Most children end up in mainstream schools with huge classes and very little in the way of support,  because there are just not enough schools with enough expertise to handle kids and their various needs.  The system is just not yet evolved enough in Israel to be able to support kids with autism and the academic, social, developmental and physical support that is vital to so many children on the autism spectrum.

A few months ago, a friend, who wants to someday make aliyah, went to Israel for the first time to volunteer on a Kibbutz.  This friend happens to have Aspergers Syndrome but although he has challenges, he is functional, smart and able to adapt.  He held a job in his home country, made it through school with flying colors and has many friends and social contacts.  Shortly after his arrival in Israel though, he  had some problems with the work he was given to do, in a kibbutz factory, he had a boss who didn’t speak English and who would not take the time to explain in enough detail what had to be done.  After two days he was fired for not doing his job properly, even though he had repeatedly asked for clearer instructions.  He contacted me when this happened and I advised him to discuss the situation with his madrichim, so he did, he asked for different work and offered that he had Aspergers as a way to just explain how important it was for him to have clear instructions.  At the very mention of Aspergers he was told they couldn’t find him another position and that this program did not accommodate people with disabilities, and would withdraw his visa and he had to leave the country within a few weeks.

Other friends struggled for years to get services for their daughter who had problems in school.  The school (in a very affluent area of Tel Aviv), basically required that the parents medicate their daughter if she wanted to continue at that particular school, they could not get any therapeutic support for her and had to pay for therapy out of their own pockets, meaning that they were very limited in being able to truly support her needs.  Although she does well in school, she struggles socially.  I know from my own daughter that those struggles only get more pronounced as each child grows older and while this girl has made enormous strides, I constantly feel that if the Israeli educational and health systems provided more support for special needs, she could get help in truly dealing with her issues rather than just the roll-the-dice approach that has been offered.  Another friend has been fighting for months to get outplacement for his non-verbal son.

Are these isolated incidents?  Maybe.  But I’ve talked to a lot of people within Israel and they all say the same thing.  Services are extremely limited, out placement is very difficult and kupat holim covers very little.

They can’t even get bamba and other deadly allergens out of schools without a huge fight.  Israel seems light years away from lower teacher to student ratios for kids with special needs, one on one aids and the numerous physical, social and emotional support that my daughter receives here in the Netherlands.

As much as I love Israel and would love for my daughter to grow up there, next to her aunt, uncle and cousins and in that wonderful land that is uniquely ours, I just can’t afford to put her in that situation.  I cannot risk impeding her development to throw her in the deep end of the ocean, where a life preserver is not even a surety.

I am a Jew and a Zionist, but I am also a mother and I just cannot do that to my child.

About the Author
Dana has made it her habit to break cultural barriers and butcher languages wherever she goes. Born in Pittsburgh, Dana lived and worked in Tel Aviv for five years, before moving to the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and daughter in Amsterdam.