Shall we begin with the negative side? Or the positive side? It doesn’t matter, it’s all the same side.
If it were necessary to determine which group suffers most during COVID lockdowns, a prime candidate would be the disabled, who depend on routine much more intensely than the rest of us. An institution like Shalva of Jerusalem, which cares for the disabled, be their disability physical or mental, thus has its negative side. If it is locked down, people suffer greatly.
Precisely due to this vulnerability, Shalva is an overwhelming force for good. Like: Of course there is a Shalva. Of course there is an institution that relieves parents a few hours a day of the great challenges in caring for a child who needs much more care than the rest of the family. Of course parents won’t need to institutionalize their child. Of course there is a place for kids to flourish who have many strikes against them. “It” has to be there, right? It is only natural, right?
Anything but. It might qualify as the most unnatural thing in Israel. “It” isn’t just there, waiting for whomever needs it. “It” doesn’t happen by itself, or by government decree. Never is this made more clear than in the autobiography of one of Shalva’s founders, Kalman Samuels, the other founder being his wife, Malka.
Perhaps we should say that the real founder is their son, Yossi, rendered blind and deaf from a faulty vaccine dose at a very young age. Yes, Yossi, whom the Samuels were encouraged to “put away.” The story of the absolute, unqualified resistance to that advice — at great emotional and financial cost — is the story in Dreams Never Dreamed: A Mother’s Promise That Transformed Her Son’s Breakthrough into a Beacon of Hope (Toby Press, 2020).
The story of that son is central to the story, but the “beacon of hope,” the institution of Shalva, is central to the lives of countless Israelis whose children come into their own. And that, frankly, is not even the whole of it.
A story of courageous and pioneer- ing parents and of the institution they created touches a lot more people than the people it touches. For example, it touches the thousands of volunteers who have been and continue to be drawn to Shalva. And that, frankly, is not the whole of it. Shalva touches everyone who has a dream, an impossible dream. Everyone who needs to address a critical social need in such a way that the solution is . . . just there, right? It’s only natural, right?
Except that it isn’t. Nothing that is critical to meeting a gaping, unmet need is just there. Above and beyond the amazing work that Shalva does day in and day out — and the terrible burden when COVID must shut down this daily work — is Shalva’s status as a role model. If the Samuelses could make this happen, anyone can make their own dream happen. For as Dreams Never Dreamed makes clear, the Samuelses brought no training to their dream. Only necessity, love and rock-hard persistence.
Humbly marketed as a “memoir,” written by a tech geek who became a special needs expert, one would hardly expect to be entertained by his story. Yet, one is tempted to say: Kalman Samuels missed his calling. He is a fabulous writer, a compelling storyteller. His memoir is gripping, also by turns filled with humor, mystery, courtroom drama, baseball and the ins and outs of post-rock ‘n roll popular music; all overlaid with a religious journey from public school in Vancouver to intense yeshiva study in Bnei Brak.
Well, not really. The real overlay in the book is Yossi Samuels, what happened to him, how the medical authorities by turns dismissed his symptoms, then disclaimed fault for them, consigned him and his parents to their own private hell, fought them tooth and nail when the Samuelses sought compensation to use the resources to give Yossi everything possible to help him.
The genius of the book is that all of the contradictions the Samuelses faced, not to mention the rest of the extraordinary difficulties in raising a child gone blind and deaf, don’t really overlay the book at all. This is a book of triumph, not of defeat; a tale of soaring hope, not of despair.
One might also be tempted to say that this is a textbook case in fundraising. As if the Samuelses did not have enough on their hands raising Yossi and six other children, they opened their home to other children with disabil- ities who needed help, and whose parents needed a daily respite. From this the Samuelses expanded into a rented apartment (ours), whereupon somehow Kalman began to raise big funds. Long story short: “Shalva” was now not only an organization, but a building.
A beautiful, five-story building. Wow. Except: No. Not wow. Even though Shalva’s bright new facility had many creatively designed services and contraptions to aid a child with virtually any disability, and even though the building could serve many more families, it, too, became but a stepping stone.
Not a few million dollars, but many tens of millions of dollars away stood another dream, much bigger, a much more comprehensive and accessi- ble facility. How Kalman raised that money is told here in dramatic detail. The reader finds himself rooting for Kalman’s success, rejoicing in his persuasion, and perhaps above all rejoicing in the willingness of philanthropists to put their money into a very unglamorous cause. Perhaps that is the Samuels’ greatest achievement: their transformation of an unglamorous cause into the very opposite.
Along the way Kalman celebrates his religious awakening, revels in his study of Torah, integrating it naturally into his mind, interests and soul. At the same time he is very mellow about the big wide world in which people see religion very differently from how he does. It would distort his persona even to say that he preaches by how he practices, because he doesn’t preach at all. He embraces all comers; inevitably his inspiration sometimes rubs off or generates clarity. Either way, his focus remains fixed: on the kids, on their families, on the way a disability need not derail personal achievement. He is so proud of the “Shalva Band,” which is only the most visible of the countless, small, incremental, joyous steps the kids at Shalva take.
I can summarize all this in a few lines. You can get the full picture in a few hours of reading. But the real timeline is the greater part of a lifetime. That’s what the Samuelses have put into Shalva. And that, my friends, hardly scratches the surface of Dreams Never Dreamed, whose most astonishing dream is the story of how Yossi learned how to communicate. Like Helen Keller. To reveal these details would certainly transcend “spoiler” status. Read the book.
Just one thing.
Don’t start reading it when you have something else to do.
It won’t get done.
Because you won’t put the book down.
• • •
If this is not a story for this Rosh Hashanah — how the negative becomes the positive — I don’t know what is.
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountian Jewish News