What happens when you flip expectations? When you reframe who is an ‘insider’ and who is an ‘outsider’, what is ‘peripheral’ and what is the ‘center’? We can consider these questions in the context of integration and the special needs community in Israel – both of which were highlighted last year with the surprise overnight sensation of the Shalva Band and its performance at Eurovision. And coincidentally, it was right around this time that I headed up North to the town of Kfar Vradim in order to spend time at the Maarag Center, which has been part of the conversation on special needs and ‘inclusion’ in recent years.
At the Maarag Center (translated as ‘tapestry’), you find a place that defies an easy label. A community for special needs adults, Maarag is also an art gallery, a rehabilitative employment center, a restaurant, an events hall, and much more. So what is the model that is flipped here? Special needs is not on the outside looking in. Rather, the Maarag Center is inviting everyone to join their space. They are your hosts.
The concept for the Maarag Center is a twist on the idea of ‘reverse inclusion,’ a phrase that is often used to describe educational settings where typically developing children are included in a special needs classroom. A flagship project of the nonprofit Cochav Hatzafon, the vision, as first conceptualized by its director Ruti Gofer, was to set up a communal space with an emphasis both on tourism and employment training opportunities for special needs adults, along with an income generating model to support their activities. Needless to say, it is a combination of ideas -such as tourism and disabilities- that do not often go together.
The Maarag Center is just one of the many services offered by Cochav Hatzafon (translated as “Northern Star”), a non-profit that has grown over the past 20 years from a local afterschool program to a regional provider of residential programs, vocational trainings, and rehabilitation centers. And like all the services of Cochav Hatzafon, Maarag offers a multi-cultural experience, with both the staff and members representing the full diversity of the communities in the Galilee – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druse.
I should pause and note the relevant terminology. Both the location of the Maarag Center and the population that it serves are considered the ‘periphery’ (pronounced ‘peripheria’), an all-purpose Hebrew term for what is perceived to be outside the center. It is often used to describe the geographic periphery, basically anywhere that is not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. And it is also used to refer to communities that are not part of the ‘dominant group’, such as the Mizrachim, Ethiopians, Russians, and Bedouins, as well as those individuals with special needs. Of course, it takes a while to understand the ubiquitous use of this term here, especially because it encompasses all kinds of people living in all kinds of places who don’t actually feel peripheral to anything.
Spending time at a place like Maarag will remind you to keep widening your perspective on all of these categorizations that we tend to make, helping you to keep zooming in and out. I loved being an observer at the restaurant, enjoying the daily bustle, noting the details of the artwork on the walls, and trying to take it all in. I got to talk to our hosts, the members of Maarag, who told us their individual stories, amid the clamor of the restaurant crowd – locals of all ages and tourists coming from near and far.
But at the same time, I kept zooming out, reflecting on the larger context of this issue. Maybe it’s the peaceful setting of Maarag- surrounded by the Galilee mountains – that makes it difficult not to get philosophical. I kept thinking about how we decide what is defined as the ‘center’ and the ‘margins’, or who is ‘included’ or ‘excluded’?
Either way, zooming in or out, you will sense a shift in terms of who are the ‘hosts’, and you can see how inclusion efforts can be a central and visible part of the communal fabric. While you are there, you can tour the various workshops on the premises, from ceramics, textiles, carpentry and basket-weaving to multi-media and printing. Sensitivity workshops are offered as well. Here, with the aid of large gloves, special glasses, or other tools, you can begin to understand the challenge individuals with disabilities face as they work each day to develop their talents.
You can also see products from the multimedia workshop and digital marketing courses, including a variety of short films. These mini-documentaries have been developed under the guidance of one of their more well-known volunteers, documentary filmmaker Micha Livne, who has been coming weekly for years to teach storytelling through film.
And because its model sets it apart, the Maarag Center regularly hosts representatives from social services agencies, municipalities and nonprofits. It is one of the many examples of creativity in this field that we see around the country. Just as a sampling, where I live in the North, you can see an array of options of communal living for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities, such as the communities of Kfar Tikva and Kishorit.
Of course, Israel, like other countries, faces a mountain of challenges integrating special needs individuals into the general society, from the lack of accessibility and limited funding to the battle against stereotypes and fear. But at the same time, a variety of organizations are continually advancing innovative models, even winning coveted status as United Nations’ consultants on topics ranging from inclusive youth movements to social entrepreneurship.
The message of communal settings such as the Maarag Center, where they have built a shared space for everyone, is a ‘take away’ that stays with you. After all, we all want to feel connected, productive, and valuable. We all want to build a life that we are excited to be living. Just like the name ‘Maarag’ reminds us, we should always be thinking about the texture of our society and the social fabric that we weave together for everyone. And as we do this, we can continue to adjust our lens, zooming in and zooming out, flipping the models as needed.