(Courtesy of ALEH) In September 2016, ALEH (www.aleh.org), Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities, joined forces with Israel’s Ministry of Education to launch “Tikkun Olam,” 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. Building upon the success of its 2016-17 pilot program, ALEH will enhance Tikkun Olam’s offerings during the 2017-18 school year, beginning with the roll out of special programming to mark Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) at schools across the country.
Geared towards students entering the ninth grade, Tikkun Olam was established to bring about a change in societal attitude towards individuals with disabilities through youth leadership and community engagement. In its first year, more than 10,000 Israeli students from 60 schools participated in the program, leading to a noticeable spike in youth-led volunteerism and social activism initiatives.
“We couldn’t be prouder of this program, which is the fulfillment of a dream for ALEH. Working together with the Ministry of Education, we are educating towards change on a grand scale and seeing immediate results countrywide,” said Avi Wortzman, director general of ALEH’s rehabilitative village in the Negev and the brains behind the Tikkun Olam program.
“For more than three decades, we have mobilized our dedicated staff, international volunteers and donors and local leadership to improve the lives of the hundreds of children with disabilities in our care and promote inclusion in the communities we serve. Now that every participating school in Israel has become an ALEH satellite and a megaphone for the cause, our ability to impact the public and spread the messages of acceptance and inclusion has increased tenfold and we are making a real difference for individuals with disabilities well beyond the walls of our own residential facilities.”
To increase Tikkun Olam’s geographic reach and professional depth, ALEH partnered with nonprofit organizations Makom L’Kulam (“A Place for Everyone”) and Negishut Yisrael (“Access Israel”), both leading voices in the fight for disability rights in Israel. Together, the three organizations have traversed the country, bringing specially designed educational modules to secular and religious schools across Israel.
At every school, the Tikkun Olam programming begins with a lecture by a disability care professional that introduces the students to the various types of disabilities, the concept of accessibility and the impact of inclusion on society at large. Students then participate in a variety of workshops that range from meetings with teenagers and adults with disabilities who explain how they navigate their worlds on a daily basis to informational videos about specific visible and invisible disabilities to hands-on “disability experiences,” such as navigating an obstacle course in wheelchairs, walking the school grounds with blindfolds and canes, experiencing a sensory overload and conversing in sign language while wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
“This project is incredible, and we are already seeing a change in the way that our students talk about and interact with individuals with disabilities,” said Tamar Megidon Sharett, the social education coordinator at the Na’amat Hasharon Technological High School in Hod Hasharon, a Tikkun Olam participant. “It has made them more sensitive and empathetic and they are excited to give of their time to help others.”
Following the educational seminars at their respective schools, classes are invited to take part in “field activities,” opportunities to assist peers with disabilities in fun and educational settings, in the hope that these outings will serve as a springboard for volunteerism. Thus far, the students’ excitement to participate has far exceeded expectations.
In November, after volunteering at the Harim School for Special Needs in Givat Ada, students from the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa made a plan to run the 2.5 kilometer race at the Haifa Half-Marathon Event together with their new friends. Led by their physical education teacher, 50 Hebrew Reali School students ran the race with 20 students from the Harim School. One student even ran while singing in order to provide encouragement to a young man named Rafi who can only communicate through song.
Earlier this month, close to 400 ninth graders from the Interdisciplinary High School in Hadera accompanied students from the Neve Etgar School for Children with Special Needs in Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva for a Tu B’Shevat tree-planting activity. While planting saplings and enjoying seasonal fruits together, the two groups of students formed strong bonds, and the classes from Hadera decided that they wanted to do more. In the days since, they have visited Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva to run a music circle and craft activities on their own initiative.
Tikkun Olam’s special JDAIM programming comprises 15 events, including education seminars with new participants, field activities at ALEH centers and a fully accessible Purim carnival at Yeshivat Bnei Akiva Lapid in Modiin, where 80 students from the Harim School will be the guests of honor.
“Like most high school students, I was very self-centered. I only cared about personal satisfaction and my own achievement. But I have since realized that giving of myself and loving unconditionally is not only the key to my own happiness, but the key to moving our society forward,” said Avi Ben-Torah, a national service volunteer who assists with the Tikkun Olam program at ALEH’s rehabilitative village in the Negev. “I can see the changes in the students as they learn about inclusion and begin to understand why giving is so much better than receiving. By teaching them these lessons while they are young and providing them with these important growth experiences before they become self-absorbed, we will change Israeli society for the better.”
To learn more about ALEH and the Tikkun Olam program, arrange a site visit in Israel or donate, please visit www.ALEH.org.