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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Aliyah and the Special Needs Educator

She had a heart problem but no one imagined she would pass away the next day.

Team ALEH at the Jerusalem Marathon 2013

Team ALEH at the Jerusalem Marathon 2013

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As an education writer for the nonprofit organization, Kars4Kids, and as someone who made Aliyah from Pittsburgh 34 years ago, I decided to write about the challenges of Aliyah from western countries with school age children. See the previous piece in this series, Aliyah and Keeping Young with Yisrael.

“Bo-ker tov l’Ji-HAD-I. Aizeh kef l’Ji-HAD-I,” was the sound that greeted me as I peeked into one of the classrooms at ALEH Jerusalem. “Good morning to little Jihad. How fun for little Jihad.”

I gave a start. There at the center of the room was a teacher, swinging a little girl from side to side inside a circle of smiling singing parents holding their own small children. Some of the mothers wore the Hijab; one father wore a crocheted Kipa; while still other mothers were bewigged according to Haredi tradition.

It was the little girl’s name that had given me a start. Here I was, touring a state of the art Israeli facility, the first of its kind for children with severe disabilities accompanied by a complex medical dynamic. Here in this place, the Jewish State of Israel offers the best of the best to its multicultural society, while the very name of a child in treatment speaks to a desire by her societal sector, by her parents, to annihilate Israel and the Jewish people.

Is it any wonder I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance?

Zahava's students throw her a surprise birthday party in which each student has a special task, i.e. dance with Zahava, give her a crown, offer her a bracha by voice or communication device. (photo courtesy Zahava Altshul)

Zahava’s students throw her a surprise birthday party in which each student has a special task, i.e. dance with Zahava, give her a crown, offer her a bracha by voice or communication device. (photo courtesy Zahava Altshul)

I whispered to the director of ALEH Jerusalem, Shlomit Grayevsky, “Whatta name.”

She shrugged, her face impassive. “We treat everyone who comes to us. All receive equal treatment.”

The parents smiled at me, including the Hijab-wearing mom of Jihadi.

We peeked into another room. Shlomit explained to me that of the 80 fulltime residents of ALEH, 65% were born with cerebral palsy. The remainder may have issues as a result of genetic disorders, while some sustained permanent disabilities due to home accidents. That caught me up short. “Home accidents?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Shlomit. “That child over there,” she said, pointing, “drowned in a bathtub, while that one there,” she pointed again, “choked on a bottle of formula.”

Horrific. I couldn’t cope if I were the parent of such a child, even though I know it to be true: Accidents happen.

Zahava with a student during a therapeutic gardening session.

Zahava with a student during a therapeutic gardening session.

Later that evening, I speak to Zahava Altshul, a special education teacher at ALEH Jerusalem. Zahava hails from Silver Spring, Maryland, having made Aliyah a few months shy of turning 21. She majored in special education at Bar Ilan University, and has worked at ALEH Jerusalem ever since she graduated, 6 years ago. Zahava is 29 and the mother of three girls.

An educator, rather than a caregiver, Zahava’s job includes the overall management of the classroom. Zahava isn’t responsible for the physical care of her charges, but sure, if the caregivers are busy and a child needs changing, she’s going to step in and do that. Her job is to ensure all student needs are met, both educational and physical.

Here is what she had to say:

Varda: What are your goals when you walk into the classroom each day?

Zahava: With everything I’m looking through the eyes of other teachers, considering what’s best for a child’s education. If a kid would, for instance, learn better standing, I would help that child stand or have someone stand her up for me. Every child has a schedule for standing, sitting, and getting changed. There’s a schedule to engage the olfactory skills: seeing, smelling, tasting. And of course, I make sure every kid has his needs taken care of.

Varda: How many students do you have? What’s your schedule like? Do you have students with a medically complex dynamic?

Zahava: There are 7 kids in my class, aged 10-14 years. I work 24 hours a week. At ALEH, each teacher generally has the same classroom for two years.

Every ALEH classroom is equipped for oxygen. My current students don’t require oxygen, but I once had a student who needed it for a short time. She was able to continue to be a part of the classroom because there was an oxygen port on the wall.

Varda: Do you ever feel burnt out by the work?

Zahava: Some days are more challenging than others. Some days you get a smile or a child will reach his hand out to you to communicate or to ask you something and that overcomes the challenges. If you’ve been working on something for three months and finally that student can walk with the walker, it makes up for all the hard times.

Varda: Did you ever lose a student?

Zahava: At first, I was a floating substitute, but after two years I was assigned a regular classroom. In my first two months two of my students passed away. One was sick and it was expected. The other death was sudden.

She had a heart problem but no one foresaw [her passing] would happen the next day. It was hard and obviously very sad. In both cases, the day before these students passed away, we did activities together and especially with the one that was sudden, we were dancing, we took photos together, she laughed and smiled.

It just proved to me that we have to give these kids the best we can—to provide them with the best possible options. Read to them, sing to them, to give them all the things you’d give to normal children, you have to always give them the best quality of life because you never know.

You never know.

It made me stronger. It pushed me to take advantage of every minute in the class. Because you never know.

You want to give each kid the best you can, the most independence you can within their limitations.

If you have a kid who can wash his hands, get him to do that. If he can’t move anything but his little finger, get him to do that. Give them lots of praise for what they can do and don’t focus on what they can’t do.

I’m always looking to see what they can do in order to help them improve. Something sticks with me along those lines. I was speaking to an ALEH mother and we were talking about living in an institution versus living at home. She said, “I guess when I had her at home I was always comparing her to my other children. She can’t do this thing and she can’t do this thing.”

But then she goes to ALEH and it’s, “Sarah can smile, Sarah can look at a piece of paper and follow with her eyes from one side to the other.”

At home this mother couldn’t see these things because she was always comparing Sarah to her other kids. At ALEH, we praise what the child can do, even the smallest things, like smiling and laughing.

Varda: How does it feel to come home to your little girls at the end of the day?

Zahava: It makes me more appreciative, more patient. If I get frustrated with the kids, like with my first grader if she has a little trouble with reading, I say, “So okay, this is what she has.”

You need to be patient. You need a lot of patience. It might take a child two years to learn to choose between two activities on a picture symbols board or sensory board but we don’t give up.

Varda: Tell me about the picture symbols and sensory boards.

Zahava: The picture symbols are used to help us communicate with the children. The symbols may show what activity we’re doing now, what activity we will do next. The symbols help orient the students and give them greater independence. I can ask my students, “What activity would you like to do?”

The child can touch or gaze at the pictures to communicate a response. Low vision students can use sensory symbols in the same manner.

None of my students can speak, but I do have a student that can make specific sounds for things. “Vuh vuh vuh” is “boker tov” (good morning). Another student may simply make a noise. I might ask, “Who wants me to say good morning to them?”

Some will smile; one will go “awah” or “vuh vuh vuh;” another girl will just call out and make some kind of noise. I will respond to whatever they’ve got. I will say, “Efrat, ani shomat otach, Efrat, I hear you.”

I’m going to acknowledge Efrat for what she does. I don’t know exactly what she wants to say but I am going to respond to her. We are always looking for ways to expand the students’ communication. I am always present and aligned with the needs of my students, who have varying levels of intellectual disabilities.

I use a holistic view when working with the children, looking at all the aspects that could affect them. I teach them using all their senses, giving them opportunities and experiences that each child deserves and I try to give each child the quality of life that she deserves and to expand her level of independence to the highest possible level, despite the limitations.

Varda: Do you like your job?

Zahava: I really enjoy myself. I’m challenged so I’m not bored. I like seeing their smiles and I like when they call out to me. I like the people who work with me.

ALEH is a warm loving place. It’s a home. It’s not just a special needs home. We’re not just teachers: we’re mothers, we’re nurses, you know?

It’s a really special place.

Find out more information about ALEH.

Feel free to write me: Varda at kars4kids dot org and I will share your stories here in this space, anonymous or attributed as you prefer.

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About the Author: Blogger and mother of 12 Varda Meyers Epstein is a third-generation Pittsburgher who made aliyah at age 18 and never looked back. A proud settler who lives in the biblical Judean heartland, Varda serves as the communications writer for the nonprofit car donation program, Kars for Kids.


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4 Responses to “Aliyah and the Special Needs Educator”

  1. Doris Jaffe says:

    Kol HaKavod and Yasher Koach to the wonderful caring staff at ALEH for helping each child live up to their potential.

  2. Each time I travel to Israel from our home in Washington DC, I make time in my schedule to visit Aleh in Jerusalem – a most remarkable, professional and compasionate facility for children and young adults with severe disabilities. Being a parent of a young woman with these same profound needs, I am at a loss to identify a facility in the US that compares to the wide array and highest quality of services provided by Aleh. Talented and devoted teachers like Zahava Altshul are indeed some of Israel's greatest treasures and unsung heroes.

  3. Sara Kruger says:

    The work that Aleh does is so wonderful! Kol hakavod, Zahava!

  4. Thanks for showing your support for ALEH, Liz.

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