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 at Sweet Sixteen.
In today’s column I speak to Leah, who made Aliyah from a major American city four years ago. She and her husband David are both professionals. Leah was so eloquent I barely had any need to prompt her with questions. Here she speaks about two of her four children, Avraham and Yitzchak, both special needs children.
We’ve been here for four years. We came in August of ’09 with our four kids. The oldest, Avraham, was turning nine, Yitzchak was six, Yaakov had just turned three and the youngest (Sarah) was three months. Yitzchak hadn’t started kindergarten yet. He had some severe difficulties.
Before we left for Israel, Yitzchak had been diagnosed as being bipolar, which turned out not to be the correct diagnosis. We knew he couldn’t function in a normal school environment. We tried to put him in kindergarten but the Jewish day school couldn’t handle him. Their solution was to put him in “time out” all day.
We’d pick him up and we’d say, “What did you do today?” and he would say, “I sat in a chair all day long.”
A HARD DAY
I would call his teacher and say, “What happened with Yitzchak and she’d say, “Oh, he had a hard day. We had to put him in time out,” and I would ask how long and she’d say, “I don’t remember, maybe thirty minutes,” and it turned out it was more like six hours, day after day after day.
He was put in the time out chair or sent to the principal’s office. And it wasn’t that he was really being bad. It was just that they couldn’t handle his emotional… he had severe emotional difficulties. He had no social skills. He couldn’t read social cues. He couldn’t interact with children—couldn’t play.
He had no tolerance for frustration so that if someone did something he didn’t like, he’d haul off and slug them or kick them. And when he’d see kids playing a game, like at recess, he would want to join in, but he didn’t really know how to do it, so he’d like take the ball from them. They’d say, “Hey what are you doing?” and he’d laugh, but it didn’t win him any friends.
COULDN’T BE WORSE
He was out of kindergarten about 9 months at home with me before we made Aliyah. I never thought the educational choices in Israel would be worse than where we lived in the U.S. No one had the resources, the time or the interest, in helping Yitzchak. Also, there was just really no Jewish option for a kid like him. So I never worried what our choices were going to be in Israel because whatever they were they couldn’t be worse than our choices in the U.S.
We came to Efrat and the education committee met with us before we put Yitzchak in school. They decided that there wasn’t any place in Efrat that was right for him, so they put him in a special school in Jerusalem and even arranged his transport. It was a really good preschool program for special needs kids. He did fine. He made friends. The classes were small, just 15 kids with a teacher and two helpers. Each kid got plenty of attention.
Yitzchak would act out for whatever reason and they were fine with it. There was no feeling that he was a total freak, unlike the school in the U.S. that made us feel like he was a real freak. There were no tears shed in [anonymous U.S. city] at his leaving.
At the school in Jerusalem, however, they really cared about him—could see through his issues to see his good qualities. They just adored him because he is and was an adorable little boy with really good qualities and they could also see his special qualities, too. They focused on his positive qualities and didn’t treat him like some kind of freak.
KIDS NEED LOVE
His teachers really loved him and he needed that. Kids need to feel loved. He finished preschool and then went to a small school for special needs kids in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
He had a really lovely teacher, again with really small classes—we’re talking 6-8 kids per class with a teacher and a helper and all tuition and transportation all covered, completely free. If the education committee decides your kid needs a special learning environment that isn’t available in your community, they pay for everything.
You have all these options and they’re all Jewish you can’t even put a price on that, I feel.
Then he had a really bad psychotic break. This was always sort of in his makeup. I would notice that he was talking about stuff that wasn’t real, but little kids do that and he was seeing a psychiatrist and was on medication.
OUTSIDE OF REALITY
Then things took a turn for the worse. He was talking about flying through windows. He would run away and be confused about where he’d gone. He’d run away from the school bus and I’d look for him and he would come home and tell me stories about being in school and I knew he hadn’t been there, so I had to hospitalize him: he was completely out of reality.
He was hospitalized at Eitanim, a mental hospital with a really great children’s ward. All covered by Kupat Cholim [HMO]. I didn’t pay a penny.
He was unmedicated—off all medication for six months. The first thing they do is take them off all meds. They wanted to see him unmedicated. They wanted to see his true personality without anything external affecting his brain.
And they have this incredible staff, so gentle and loving. Warm with the kids and caring. I mean, I saw some incredible things there, kids who were so disabled they couldn’t talk or kids who were filled with rage and the staff members would just hold them and talk to them. Amazing. Instead of dosing them with drugs, they’d cuddle them.
LIKE A KIBBUTZ
Eitanim was kind of like a kibbutz with rooms especially for children, music rooms, all kinds of therapies! And the kids there get three therapies a day.
It was here at Eitanim he was diagnosed with autism. He was completely normal until age three. No one had ever said anything about autism to me. He had been to two psychiatrists and had all kinds of therapies—no expense had been spared to help him in America and no one had even suggested it might be autism. I don’t know why.
His autism is a rare form: Multiple Complex Developmental Mental Disorder (MCDD). MCDD is autism with co-morbid schizophrenia. There was an autism specialist at the hospital and she was the one who did all the testing to fine tune the diagnosis. There was a whole team— there was an educational specialist and all sorts of other specialists, all different modalities represented to figure out what to do with Yitzchak. He had a team of six people. Each kid at the hospital had his own, often dedicated, team.
I WAS SCARED
They didn’t put him on medication until the last six weeks of his six-month hospitalization. We were allowed to visit twice a week and kids are allowed home for Shabbat. That I didn’t like. I was scared he’d get hurt or hurt one of the kids.
He tended to let loose more at home. He felt safe at home to let loose. The hospital was more restrictive. Plus there was someone there to be with him at all times. [At home] I might have been changing my daughter’s diaper while he was doing something dangerous.
They do a whole evaluation and they decide that he can continue at the same school in Ramat Beit Shemesh, though there was a lot of debate between the head of the team and the others. She wanted him to go to a special pnimia (dormitory) for very, very sick children and my husband and I were like no way are you taking our kid away from us and we’ll do whatever we need to do but no way are you taking him away from us.
So we took him home and he continued at the school at Ramat Beit Shemesh and did better and better until they decided he could go into shiluv (mainstreaming program) at a local school in Efrat where he is in the PDD [Pervasive Developmental Disorder] class of sixteen children. In my opinion it’s better than where he was in that special school in Ramat Beit Shemesh. The staff is amazing.
JUST THE GREATEST
He has two teachers. They spend part of the day in the special classroom and a quarter of the day with the regular kids, when the total number of students is 30 including Yitzchak’s smaller class of 16. He has a very good Kupa (HMO) doctor and an excellent, excellent Kupa psychiatrist. He’s just the greatest.
The other thing that’s really great that people should know is that if your child has PDD you are entitled to 2000 NIS per month for any kind of therapy they need, even private therapies or medication, and this is in addition to the three therapies he gets per week, such as music therapy, horseback riding therapy, cycle therapy, all completely free. And even in addition to that, in the schools themselves, the school gives free therapies, for instance, occupational therapy, speech, music, art.
BIG BROTHER AVRAHAM
My older son Avraham is also special needs. He has a learning disability as well as ADD. When we first came to Efrat, we enrolled him in a local school. Things did not go well that first year for him. The school was not equipped to handle his special needs at all.
So after wasting literally a year, the education committee called a meeting to discuss his case. They decided to send him out of Efrat and they sent him to that same school in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
It’s been a great school for him. He’s back at his grade level, which is good because he lost a whole year academically, after making Aliyah. This is his final year there. He is in seventh grade.
We feel lucky. It’s difficult to get kids into this school because it only accepts a small number of students and it’s very expensive. But the government provides all this for him in addition to his transportation.
MIRACULOUS IMMIGRANT KID
The bottom line is he’s doing fine. He’s learning at his grade level, in fact doing better than his classmates in Hebrew and math! That’s kind of a miracle for an immigrant kid. And his Hebrew was nonexistent when we arrived four years ago and now he’s at the top of his class in Hebrew! He’s a smart kid.
Next year he goes to Yeshiva. We’re not sure where yet but we’re looking for a place that strengthens students in their Judaism.
(Here I ask Leah to comment on those detractors who say that Israel is behind in the field of special needs children).
It’s just not true. The expert on autism at Eitanim is like at the top of her field. And there’s a lot of awareness here. And the fact that Bituach Leumi (National Insurance) recognizes the issue to tune of giving you 2000 NIS a month to give these kids all they need?? I don’t know how it will be with Obamacare, but I don’t believe it will give anyone anything comparable.
There’s a lot of love for these children. The teachers here have been incredibly loving and warm and caring and with children in general, Israelis are very child-centered. I think almost everything in this country is motivated by the feeling that children are the most important thing in the world.
Leah and her family remain anonymous here because her children might not wish to be identified, though Leah is a firm believer that there should be no stigma attached to disabilities or mental illness (this writer concurs!). Readers wishing further information on Leah’s story or on getting help for special needs children in Israel can be in touch with Leah through this writer, Varda at Kars4Kids dot org. Please do write me with your own stories on Aliyah and education.
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 Kars4Kids, a Guidestar silver medal charity.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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