There are people whose lives follow the path they were born into, and many of them accomplish remarkable things. Then there are those people whose lives take a 180-degree turn from the life they were born into, and go on to do the most extraordinary things.
Kalman (Kerry) Samuels is one such person. When he was born in Vancouver, Canada, the third child of a non-religious Jewish family, no one would ever have expected Kerry Samuels to become Rabbi Kalman Samuels and to found an organization like Shalva (The Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities). But he set out to accomplish the impossible – and succeeded.
The Jewish Press recently spoke to him about his organization and his new book, published last month, Dreams Never Dreamed: A Mother’s Promise That Transformed Her Son’s Breakthrough Into a Beacon of Hope.
The Jewish Press: Your book is an amazing chronicle of your success in creating Shalva. Unfortunately, this came about as the result of a tragedy, your little boy Yossi getting a faulty DPT vaccination in 1977 when he was just an infant. Tell me about it.
Rabbi Samuels: When Yossi was 11 months old, we took him for a routine check-up at a baby clinic in Jerusalem where he received a DPT vaccine that, unbeknownst to us and the public at the time, was part of a faulty batch.
Almost immediately, we saw a dramatic change in Yossi’s health. He spiked a high fever and his eyes were glassy. Although some of the doctors claimed he was fine, we knew that something terrible happened that morning.
Yossi was also acutely hyperactive and could not see, so he often banged his head violently. It was terribly devastating to see our healthy, smiley baby in such distress, especially with no clear way of knowing how to help him.
Where did your search for help lead you?
After visiting several leading doctors in Israeli hospitals, it became clear to us that there was some kind of censor preventing us from getting clear answers about what happened to Yossi’s body as a result of the faulty vaccine.
My uncle, who was a leading doctor in New York, offered to get Yossi appointments with his colleagues. It was clear to us that we would only be able to get a diagnosis outside of Israel, so we moved to New York for several years.
For the first time, we received clear answers – that he was blind and deaf. Yossi attended school for the first time in New York, at the Lighthouse Nursery School, which was an incredible experience and shaped some of our fundamental principles when establishing Shalva.
Eventually you hired a lawyer, Avi Fischer, to sue the Israeli health system, the labs responsible for the vaccine, and the doctors involved. I read that there was a major cover-up. Even Yossi was put on the stand. How did that go?
The day that Yossi took the stand was undoubtedly one of the most difficult days of the trial, yet it was also the most important. When Yossi told the courtroom that his one wish was to once again see his parents, I think it became clear to everyone that there were multiple levels of pain involved, not just physical.
When Yossi spoke, he became so much more than the subject of a court case or, worse – as many perceived him in his state – an inanimate object. As only Yossi can do, despite his limitations, he represented himself and his case better than anyone else in the world could.
It was your wife Malki who dreamed of having a center where people could bring their special-needs children for therapy in a loving environment and have a good time also. How did you feel about this with your ever-expanding family?
I always fully trusted Malki and I was determined to help her fulfill her vision. The value of helping others is something we transmitted to our children and, with Shalva, something we made part of our daily life. Our large family was not a hurdle in establishing Shalva; on the contrary, it facilitated the ins and outs of the organization’s establishment and operation.
It was a family project from the beginning, and our children helped out as Shalva counselors – doing music, art, and caring for the other children. We couldn’t have done it without them.
You started with a small venture towards actualizing Malki’s dream. But how did you get funding for it?
Getting funding for Shalva has never been a given. We have always expended great efforts to make sure we can operate at the highest standards and provide our children with the best care. At Shalva, miracles happen every day and the story of how we fund the organization is no less a miraculous chain of events than the unbelievable development that our children with disabilities are able to achieve.
I have been fortunate to meet many kind-hearted, wonderful people over the years, and these personal encounters are a significant part of my personal life story and Shalva’s story, which is why they have been included in my memoir.
I remember the second home of Shalva, the Beit Nachshon in Har Nof. I wrote an article for The Jewish Press about it called “Lucky Children.” That was a very special building featuring amazing therapies. How did that come about?
It was a very special place – with hand-painted murals on the walls, large panoramic windows in the dining room, and a remarkable array of therapy facilities. There were many elements of this building that we recreated in our new home, the Shalva National Center. There was a contagious energy, a welcoming warmth, loving and dedicated staff, and a genuine Shalva spirit which we brought along with us to the new building as well.
Shalva Beit Nachshon was given its name in memory of Nachshon Wachsman, of blessed memory, a young Israeli soldier who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 1994 and whose younger brother was a program participant at Shalva at the time.
Nachshon was also one of our dedicated volunteers. Shalva played an important role for the Wachsman family in caring for their younger son during the trying and turbulent times following Nachshon’s kidnapping.
Esther Wachsman, Nachshon’s mother, became an advocate and a voice for Shalva’s children and continues to be a dear friend of Shalva still today. Esther Wachsman’s moving Shalva story inspired many to support Shalva’s expansion into a larger facility, which we named in memory of Nachshon.
After nearly 20 years, you really needed to expand to a much larger space. It seems like miracles met you at every turn. How did you accomplish this – especially financially?
The building of the Shalva National Center, in all of its aspects, is a living miracle and a testament to the generosity of many amazing people from around the world. It took many years to navigate the legal ramifications of the building and to collect the funds to build it.
The whole process was truly a team effort. Shalva’s affiliate organizations and dear friends around the world joined forces to make this dream come true. We put our wildest dreams to paper, and those blueprints became a reality. Today we are able to serve hundreds more children and offer them opportunities that were previously unavailable.
The center is also visited by nearly 200,000 visitors from around the world every year who come to enjoy our café, events hosted in our auditorium and seminar rooms, and tours where they can learn about the world of disabilities in the most positive way. Both in terms of program development and financial aspects, the Shalva National Center is by no means a done deal. We are always growing and expanding, and every step we take comes with the necessary support from benefactors.
Please tell our readers a little about the Shalva Band.
The Shalva Band was founded a decade and a half ago. It began as an extension of our music therapy program and continued in this capacity for many years. Children who expressed exceptional talents in music were invited to have enrichment music lessons and perform alongside other band members.
Today the band is comprised of eight members who are all employed by Shalva and perform regularly on stages around the world.
Over the years, the Shalva Band’s popularity increased and their major breakthrough came about in late 2018 when they were interviewed and accepted to the Eurovision singing contest television series. They advanced through the stages of the contest and moved the entire Israeli nation with their inspiring messages of hope and inclusion.
The Shalva Band was invited to perform at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv and proved to be a great source of pride for the State of Israel. That year the band also performed at the national Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies and were even named Israel’s most influential personalities of 2019.
Millions of Eurovision viewers from around the world were also very moved by the band’s performance; and since then, they have been invited to perform at engagements across the globe.
What is the main message of your book?
One of its primary messages is that ordinary people can create extraordinary change by transforming life’s challenges into opportunities. No matter their life circumstances, people are forced to contend with challenges. These unexpected detours can often become opportunities for personal growth and even for improving the lives of others.
There are many important messages in the book about the importance of family, the power of hope, and the values of treating every person with dignity regardless of their abilities or disabilities. My book is called Dreams Never Dreamed and I have certainly learned a great deal from Yossi about following your dreams. This is a message that I impart in my book as well.
How has your book been received outside the disability community? How do people relate to your very personal story?
Of course, for families coping with disability, the details of the Shalva story strike a very personal chord; however, the messages in the book are relatable to all. Every person who picks up the book connects to something else. It is always surprising to me how deeply connected people feel with our family story and how they see various aspects of it play out in their different lives.
The book has many humorous anecdotes and meaningful insights, making it an enjoyable and inspiring read. People often find themselves crying and laughing at the same time.
Shalva’s magnificent building is now a reality and even more impressive are the many services it offers and the number of children and young adults that it serves. Perhaps the unsung heroes of this whole venture are your wife Malki and your son Yossi.
Malki has always sought the back stage under the radar and found my writing a book very challenging. In telling the story behind the Shalva story, there was no escape from the fact that she is very much the key part of it.
Yossi is without a doubt a unique source of inspiration. He has every reason to give up on life. He is blind, deaf, and cannot walk, but he never loses his zest for life, never ceases to dream new dreams and to make them happen. We must learn from him and continue to dream our dreams with the confidence that, with G-d’s help, we can realize them.
As a non-religious kid in Vancouver, I had never dreamed of becoming a rabbi. When Yossi lost his sight and hearing, I never dreamed that he would learn to communicate. And never did I dream that Yossi’s immense challenges and breakthrough to communication would lead to Shalva. Clearly, dreams never dreamed continue to unfold.
“Dreams Neer Dreamed” is available on Amazon and Kindle.