The dry unrelenting heat of the Negev struck me as I emerged from the air-conditioned cocoon of my car. Having spent the last two hours battling traffic, Israeli drivers and winding desert roads, I arrived at Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) affiliate, ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran – a rehabilitation village for children and adults with disabilities in Israel’s Negev Desert.
As a proud Israeli, being afforded the opportunity to volunteer at ALEH Negev meant so much to me on so many levels. I was playing a small part in helping to fulfill the dream of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion who famously said, “it is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.”
Arriving at ALEH Negev, the first thing you notice is the shimmering emerald-green grass intersecting golden sandstone buildings against a cloudless never-ending blue sky. ALEH Negev was the brainchild of Doron Almog, a commander from the Israel Defense Forces who had a son with disabilities and who couldn’t find an organization providing residential therapeutic services. Together with this wife, Almog dreamed of a place where people with disabilities in the Negev could receive world class support in a warm and inviting environment. Almog’s dream eventually turned into reality thanks to JNF and support from the government of Israel.
Every facility at ALEH Negev serves a purpose and the most beautiful space in the village is the “Garden of the Five Senses.” Picture a rectangular pond lined with small earthy-brown pebbles overflowing into a second pond surrounded by lush beet-purple brush grass. An oasis in an oasis, if you will. The water feature and garden were not only built for their aesthetic merit. Rather, they serve as an immersive and experiential wonderland for ALEH Negev’s residents. They come to the garden to hear the soothing trickle of the water overflowing from one pond to the other. They delight in feeling the textured contours of the leaves and the perfume of flowers while absorbing the beauty of their surroundings. For me, this garden symbolizes the vision of JNF, bringing life, hope, and love to a community outside the center of Israel.
During my week of volunteering at ALEH Negev, I met another volunteer, a young German woman by the name of Laura Knaust. As we walked through the stables housing the horses used for therapeutic riding, Laura shared an introspective moment with me. “When I began volunteering at ALEH Negev, it took me a little while to get used to the environment. I had never worked with people with disabilities before. Now, I no longer notice their disabilities. Rather, I see beautiful souls of human beings just like me who want to be friends, want to share experiences, and want to connect on so many levels. At ALEH Negev, the residents celebrate victories large and small. For some, the simple act of dressing themselves is a win.”
I also found time to connect with a member of ALEH Negev’s small professional team who shared how working with the residents of the village was like raising a second family. “You have to keep your eyes open 24/7. I’ve already raised my own family and now I am raising another. Some days are more intense than others, yet, the sense of community here is like nowhere else in the world.”
My experience at ALEH Negev is one that will stay with me forever. It has also validated my long-held belief that we must do more to support members of our community with special needs. February marks Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM). Too often, we forget that our community is blessed with people of varying abilities. It’s important that we see the ability in people’s disability and accommodate them in a way that reinforces them as equals. While the message of inclusion applies to Jews and non-Jews alike, there is a specific Jewish obligation to embrace our peers with special needs and to ensure that they can participate to the fullest extent possible in our beautifully rich communal life. As we are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5), meaning we must not allow anyone to be separated from our community against their will. Whether you are an employer, co-worker, friend, family member or anyone who knows someone with a disability, I urge you to go out of your way to make that person feel loved, valued and connected. This February let us rededicate our efforts to making this world more accessible, open and inclusive for our friends, family and community members with disabilities.
Michal Michelle Divon is an Israeli-American journalist and TV host living in New York City. Since moving to the city, Divon has emceed various events, including the annual Israel Parade, co-anchored on Fox 5 NY, and hosted events for the Consulate General of Israel, Soroka Medical Center, Batsheva Women, JCRC, JCC, AICF, WJC, and FIDF. She has appeared in the daily documentary series High Definition on i24 News and has written for The Times of Israel and other leading papers. Divon is currently a news anchor and reporter for News 12.