June 11, 2024
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FestiShalva Brings a Special Kind of American Idol to Israel

Shalva gives kids with special needs the opportunity to show off their talents.

“I’m going to sing, I’m so happy,” a beaming Hagit (age 16) said as she waited backstage for her performance at Binyanei Hauma.

Hagit is one of the 200 special needs children who spent six months practicing for the annual FestiShalva musical production in Jerusalem. Shalva, the association for mentally and physically challenged children in Israel, created FestiShalva to showcase the talents of kids with special needs. Not just another musical, “It is a celebration for the eyes as well as a celebration for the soul,” Gidon Shalom, Deputy Director of Shalva said. This year they performed a special adaptation of The Wizard of Oz that attracted thousands of people.

This initiative was the brainchild of Shai Ben-Shoshan, a former member of an elite IDF unit, who was injured by a grenade during a military operation. During the harrowing recovery where he couldn’t even feed himself, Ben-Shoshan decided to dedicate his time to helping people. Eleven years ago, Ben-Shoshan met Kalman Samuels, the CEO of Shalva, and together they decided to utilize Ben-Shoshan’s love for music to create an American Idol for kids with special needs in Israel.

To pull off a performance of this magnitude, Ben-Shoshan worked together with teachers, counselors and social workers to ensure that each child was prepared according to his or her own unique capabilities. “This evening is making dreams come true and materializes a year of hope, a year of love and a year of faith in the children,” Shalom said. For many special needs children and their parents, their life is full of dealing with the struggles of their limitations. FestiShalva aims to provide the children and their parents with a renewed sense of their personal strengths and capabilities. “We look at a child’s abilities, never at his limitations,” Avi Samuels, a major Shalva donor, said.

The effects of the show on children and their parents are enormous. Nurit Veller’s 17-year-old daughter Sivan started going to Shalva programs about a year ago and it was Veller’s first time at FestiShalva. “You have no idea how moving this was for me,” Veller gushed after the show. “It’s just astounding to see Sivan in a performance like this. She was so excited and she did great.”

Veller is not used to seeing her daughter in a production to the scale of FestiShalva. “Yesterday I got to see my daughter up close, who she really is.” Veller said. “Last night I held back, but this morning I couldn’t help myself and I cried when I thought about the show. I’m still moved from last night’s performance.”

Lacing the production with messages that Shalva teaches the kids all year round, Ben-Shushan spent countless hours each week teaching children of all ages and capabilities classic and modern songs. One of the skits in the performance uses the popular song, “Our Life Is Strawberries.” One of the characters in the skit exclaims, “Even though there are challenges in our lives, there’s always something to be happy about.”

These kids have many struggles and do not have an easy life, but their glowing faces filled with pride and excitement would never indicate they have any challenges at all. “They have something special that ‘regular’ people don’t have,” Veller said.

However, like every human in the world, kids with special needs want to know they are useful and important. FestiShalva aims to provide the children and their parents with a renewed sense of their personal strengths and capabilities. Ben-Shoshan coordinates choreographed musical sketches for each group according to their individual strengths and abilities. The process helps the children learn how to work together and make group decisions, with each child contributing to the final product.

In one scene there is a ball stuck in a box with a small opening. The characters look around and say, “We need someone small to get the ball out.” A little boy jumps up and exclaims, “Yesh! Ani Katan!” (Yes! I’m small!). Everyone has something to give and Shalva both creates the stage for kid’s strengths to naturally unfold and actively seeks out and encourages the kid’s strengths and talents. “It’s incredible how much Shalva supports the kids and gives them warmth and love,” Veller said.

The production is only possible because of the staff of 180 volunteers that are part of the show. These volunteers are local high school students who spend their spare time at Shalva with the kids. To prepare for the show they go to every practice and accompany an assigned child on stage on the day of the performance. It may look to outsiders like a sacrifice, but the teens feel like they are deeply benefiting. “I am extremely happy and proud to be part of this experience today,” Meital (16) said. “Since volunteering for Shalva, I became more aware of my surroundings and more considerate.”

Meital is not alone in her experience. “I have been volunteering in Shalva for three years,” Itay (17) said. “These kids gave me more than what I have given them.” Fellow volunteer, Amichai (17), who has also volunteered with Shalva for three years, shares Itay’s sentiments. “I have only one word to say ‘ze kef gadol’” (It’s amazing).

Although kids with special needs have different challenges, their challenges do not need to limit them. As Veller explained to her daughter Sivan, “There’s no one in the world that doesn’t have a disability. It’s just different for different people.”

By Raizel Druxman

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