In South Africa, where my entire family lives, we had everything. My husband, Yoni, and I were community leaders, had a beautiful home, a good life and a supportive Jewish community. Life was good. But as Jews, we have always had a desire to make Aliyah. However, our careers, community and other reasons made it difficult for us to actually make the decision to go.
Our number one priority has always been, keeping our children safe and happy Every decision we made along the way took into account how it would impact our children, both those attending regular schools and those with special needs.
During a trip to Israel, at an unplanned meeting we discovered ALEH, a network of care for children with severe complex disabilities that operates four residential facilities across the country. We would later visit one of the ALEH centers. We were overwhelmed by the warmth and devoted attention given to every child by the staff and volunteers. At that moment in became clear to us that moving to Israel was absolutely the right decision.
Yes, finding a job and acclimating to Israeli society would not be simple, such is immigration. During that visit to the ALEH center in Gedera, it became clear that Israel would be the ideal place to raise all of our six children. Living a Jewish lifestyle was only part of the equation. Living in a country that valued children in the ways we witnessed completed the picture for us.
Dinah (19) and Kayla (16), our second and third daughters, have severe disabilities and grew up in institutions in South Africa. Neither of them can speak, and only Kayla can walk, though they can express their feelings.
Ever since we made Aliyah, I can see how much the transition to Israel has benefitted them. While South Africa, and many other countries around the world, have facilities where children with special needs have their basic needs met, these facilities do not help them develop their abilities to the fullest. At ALEH, the approach is completely different.
The ALEH staff and volunteers work with each child to help him or her reach individualized goals – their fullest potential. But most importantly, they ensure that each child grows and develops, is treated with dignity and is provided with the tools and opportunities to live a happy and fulfilled life.
Kayla had weight problems that led to serious health complications. Since we arrived in Israel, a year and two months ago, she has lost weight and her health has improved dramatically due to a strict diet change and exercise regimen that was chosen by her ALEH therapists. The same medical problem that resulted in a three-month hospital stay in South Africa was treated with great care, professionalism and expertise by the ALEH staff. After a week, during which she remained under the supervision of the ALEH physicians, she completely recovered.
Our girls are also experiencing extreme independence at ALEH. It may sound like a small thing, but it really has a huge impact on their physical, emotional, social growth and development. In South Africa, Kayla had never managed to eat independently. Today, just over a year after our Aliyah, she is able to eat on her own, and this is all thanks to the determination of the therapeutic staff. It is extremely exciting for us.
Dinah, who is more limited cognitively and physically, is also progressing nicely and is always smiling. The team found that she really loves music, and they often use it to calm her down and make her happy. The expressions on her face show exactly what she feels, and it is clear that she is feeling comfortable and at ease.
So, while we may have given up our careers, comfort and status, we have no doubt that it was all worthwhile. I am finally at ease knowing that all my children have arrived home, and that my girls with disabilities are in the best hands possible.
Yoni and I work to raise awareness about children with disabilities, and we have seen how disability is handled in a number of places around the world. We have no doubt that the State of Israel can be very proud of its unparalleled care for individuals with disabilities.
Dinah and Kayla Lipschitz will be among the participants at the Tikkum Olam marches led by ALEH (www.ALEH.org), Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities. “Tikkun Olam” is an experiential education program that exposes Israeli high school students to peers with disabilities and imparts the importance of acceptance and inclusion through lectures, workshops and hands-on volunteering opportunities. Geared towards students entering the ninth grade, the program works to bring about a change in societal attitude towards individuals with disabilities through youth leadership and community engagement. The marches will take place in Gedera on May 30 and in Jerusalem on June 4.