Mevo’ot HaHermon, Israel – It’s said that you can judge a community by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes this more than Beni Ben-Movhar. The mayor of the Mevo’ot HaHermon Regional Council, which encompasses 13 agricultural settlements (moshavim) in the Upper Galilee region of Israel, has been blessed with able-bodied offspring.
But there’s a special place in his heart for children with profound physical and mental handicaps, who will need special education and therapy for their entire lives. So, amidst all the competing priorities and demands of northern communities facing economic hardships and social flux, “Mayor Beni” finds a way to take care of those who have no voice.
“When I die, I don’t want a monument or a building named after me,” said Ben-Movhar, a larger-than-life figure who’s been mayor since 1997 and appears to know what’s going on in every corner of the region.
“I want to know that these children will be taken care of. That will be my legacy.”
The Shechafi m School provides hands-on education to special-needs children from throughout the region. It includes a park and playground with wheelchair-accessible paths, and play structures that often double as musical instruments. The slats on top of one of the picnic tables, for example, form an oversized xylophone that can be played by a child with limited manual dexterity.
The school is steps away from the community swimming pool and from Ben-Movhar’s latest project, a hydrotherapy pool that is used by children and adults. The wheelchair-accessible pool is heated to tropical temperatures that wouldn’t be suitable for regular swimmers but are ideal for physiotherapy and pain relief.
“I come here every day,” said one of the pool’s users. “It really helps with my Parkinson’s disease.”
The regional council’s new headquarters were the site of the most recent meetings of Partnership 2Gether (P2G), which links the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and other Canadian Jewish federations with Israeli regions to strengthen Israeli society and promote unity and Jewish identity.
I wrote about our partnership with Tel Hai College in my November 25 column and Lisa Rosenkrantz has more on the P2G meetings on page 6. But our special connection with the Upper Galilee region is worth a few more words because we help change so many lives with relatively modest contributions from the Israel portion of the annual Federation campaign.
(Full disclosure: I will succeed Lisa as chair of the Ottawa P2G committee in June).
As Lisa writes, a key component of the program is Gesher Chai (Living Bridge). This people-to-people initiative includes such elements as our partnership with Hanadiv School in Metulla, student exchanges and the upcoming Social Action Mission.
But we’re also involved in youth and education programs, such as Kav Hazinuk (Starting Line), a 10-year program that coaches talented youth between 15 and 25 to become true leaders in their regions and, ultimately, in Israeli society.
Participants are mentored in high school, the army and beyond. The emphasis is on hands-on projects that focus on social change. One participant, for example, organized an organ donor drive at voting stations during a recent election.
Shira Or’s group recently organized a citizenship seminar that included meetings with Palestinians and Israelis who had lost relatives or friends because of the conflict.
“It was a tough discussion,” says Or, 18, who has travelled to Vancouver as part of Gesher Chai and was a counsellor at Camp Kadimah in Nova Scotia.
“But being able to articulate our thoughts coherently, not emotionally, had a very positive outcome.”
The third pillar of P2G is capacity building, a fancy term for regional development. That’s where the hydrotherapy pool fits in.
But, this time around, we’re not funding bricks and mortar. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the north of Israel, you know that its towns, kibbutzim and moshavim are scattered throughout the region. It’s not enough to have a great treatment facility – there has to be a way to get the 140 special-needs clients (who include Druze and Israeli Arabs) to the pool.
So Ottawa and the other Canadian federations (outside Montreal and Toronto) are funding the transportation element of the hydrotherapy program. At the time of writing, the U.S. and other world powers have signed a seriously flawed interim nuclear accord with Iran, the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is crumbling and Israel’s relations with the U.S. are increasingly strained.
There’ll be lots of time to write about those issues in 2014. But it’s just as important to share stories of Israelis coming together to take care of each other – especially when there are such strong Canadian and Ottawa connections to celebrate.