April 14, 2024
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Recently, The Jewish Link wrote about an organization called Shalva (Jan. 4, 2024, p. 31) which stepped up and galvanized their efforts to help children and young adults with special needs who were displaced during the war. That need still exists and is being ameliorated by another organization called Shekel.

שק״ל = שילוב קהילתי לאנשים עם מוגבלויות

Shekel is an Israeli nonprofit that provides a variety of services and integrative programs for people with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Shekel’s housing system is the largest community housing system in Israel for people with disabilities. The organization operates about 180 housing units throughout the country, where over 500 people from all sectors of Israeli society (religious and secular, Jews and Arabs) live, according to the needs and level of personal functioning.

During times of war and national crises, people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of the community. After the events of October 7, Shekel mobilized to help thousands of people with disabilities throughout Israel who live in dangerous and vulnerable areas and are in great emotional distress. Shekel instantly initiated a national emergency center, staffed by professionals from the Shekel treatment centers, as a crisis measure to provide guidance and immediate therapeutic advice to adults and children with disabilities adversely affected by the war, and their families.

Shekel’s emergency mobilization now assists thousands of people with disabilities throughout Israel who are living in potential physical danger and enormous emotional distress. For instance, Shekel staff were also sent to give in-person support to evacuated families who have members with disabilities from the South.

These activities have necessitated increased staff to ensure security and provide support for Shekel apartment residents living in the South, including those evacuated from the Gaza perimeter. The individuals who are sensory-sensitive were exposed to persistent sirens and rocket bombardments on a daily basis. In apartments for people with severe disabilities who are not ambulatory, the staff has less than a minute to move them into safe areas after hearing sirens.

Routine is crucial to the wellbeing of people with disabilities, especially in times of great anxiety, tension and trauma. Shekel has gone to great lengths to keep the vast majority of its programs and facilities open. This has been accomplished by adapting their rehabilitation programs as well as day centers, leisure and enrichment programs to wartime needs and reality. In this time of war, Shekel is focused on providing safe nurturing environments for people with disabilities from all sectors of the community throughout the country.

One woman vividly remembers the constant rocket sirens, heavy artillery sounds and Hamas terrorists pulling up outside her home on Kibbutz Zikim in southern Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7. This mother of three, who has lived on this kibbutz near the Gaza Strip since childhood, sheltered with her husband and three daughters in the family’s safe room for nearly 17 hours.

Four months later, however, as most of the family, which was evacuated to Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha near Jerusalem, is working through the trauma of that day and grappling with an uncertain future, her eldest daughter won’t discuss even a single aspect of what happened on that dark day.

Her 21-year-old daughter is on the autism spectrum and has some intellectual disabilities. She shut out the world with headphones and listened to music for most of Oct. 7. Although she now wakes up screaming every night, she refuses to share how she feels and does not want to talk about what happened at all.

“In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ murderous rampage through southern Israel, roughly 30,000 residents of the kibbutzim, moshavim and towns near the Palestinian enclave were evacuated from their homes. An additional 100,000 people, including from the North, were evacuated by the government in the days that followed, and another estimated 100,000 people
living in areas slightly beyond the government’s designated evacuation zone fled by themselves.”[EJewishPhilanthropy]

The abrupt and ruthless disruption to life for more than 200,000 Israelis – the majority of whom are still living in temporary accommodations such as hotels –has been colossal. People are struggling both emotionally and financially. For people with physical and mental disabilities, and their families, the sudden interruption of their daily routine and their familiar surroundings has been particularly stressful.

For those with physical and mental disabilities, the war means not only leaving behind the comfort and stability of the family home, but also the closure of the special programs they attend daily. In the weeks following Oct. 7, they had no daily framework, and the family had no assistance in caring for frightened young people struggling to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

Families did receive offers of help from social workers and well-meaning volunteers, but the situation is so overwhelming. Many special needs individuals need 24-hour supervision. For one family, for example, now crammed into two hotel rooms, it took three weeks to connect with representatives from Shekel. (Shekel mobilized its staff and activities following Oct. 7, offering free specialized services to people with disabilities and their families who had been directly affected or displaced by the war.)

Shekel set up a 24-hour hotline and deployed staff to hotels and other evacuation centers to offer trauma treatment and daily activities, as well as respite for primary caregivers. Shekel also opened vocational rehabilitation day centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to evacuees from the North and the South.

Inbal Milo David, the director of therapeutic centers at Shekel, explained that people with disabilities are especially vulnerable during war. “Some are exposed to relentless sirens and rocket bombardments on a daily basis, without fully understanding what is happening or what they are feeling. Others face massive changes to their routine and find it difficult to adjust. We have seen a constant rise in stress, anxiety attacks, sleep disturbances, challenging behaviors, somatic symptoms and other mental health issues, and there is a massive shortage of psychotherapists experienced in working with people with disabilities who are traumatized.”

Ofer Dahari, Shekel’s CEO, stated that evacuating people with disabilities is extremely complicated. Many people turned to nongovernmental organizations because it took the government several weeks to begin functioning again. “While some people were evacuated to hotels, others needed help finding accessible apartments; the difficulties people with disabilities faced were huge. We know this situation is hard for everyone but for the people we work with, we need to think about how they will adapt to a new staff, to new work placements, to new educational frameworks, new neighborhoods, new bus lines and more.”

Access Israel is another nonprofit that promotes inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities. According to founder and chairman Yuval Wagner, the organization is now working on processing what it has learned from the current crisis and is already preparing for the next emergency. He noted that a possible war in the North with the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah would likely be worse than the war now raging in Gaza. Access Israel’s “Protected as Possible” project is working on finding solutions for those who do not have quick access to shelters or safe rooms.

Tali Marcus, the executive director of Bizchut, an organization that works to promote the rights of people with disabilities, noted that one of the biggest problems is the lack of a comprehensive national database for people with disabilities, which is partly due to Israel’s privacy laws preventing personal information from being shared between different agencies.

Marcus is working on a pilot program that will allow municipalities access to a master list of people with disabilities in their area and dictate when and where those people would be evacuated to in future emergencies.

The biggest challenge for those who have been displaced is what comes next. The events of Oct. 7 and the war have destroyed plans for many young adults with disabilities to begin living more independently in young adult group homes that were being built in a number of communities. These goals were achievable because, although Shekel operates the homes, the community adopts the people who live there. At this stage, it is not clear if those communities will function again in the future, and if they do, will they have the energy to accept among them a group of people who have great needs?

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה

*Based on an article in EJewish Philanthropy by Ruth Marks Eglash.


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is the incoming principal of Yeshiva Keren HaTorah of Passaic-Clifton and the founder of the Sinai Program for Special Needs.

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