When you watch or read a news story about the Middle East, it’s often about violence and hatred – Palestinians vs. Israelis, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, fighting in Iraq, terrorist attacks in Egypt and more. But there’s an oasis of peace and love in Jerusalem where religious, ethnic and national disputes are nonexistent. And I was just there.
The oasis is called the Shalva National Center. Shalva – the Hebrew word for serenity – is the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. It serves about 2,000 people with disabilities (primarily children), from birth to adulthood every week and has served thousands more over the years. Shalva is the Middle East’s largest facility for children with disabilities.
Shalva serves Israelis and Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians – all free of charge, without regard for their religion or citizenship.
And if you’ve never been to Jerusalem, I don’t know what’s holding you back. You’re probably safer there than you are in most American cities.
One of the most powerful things I saw during my recent tour of Shalva on a fundraising trip for the center was the parenting groups. Parents from many backgrounds and many nations in the Middle East were together in the same rooms – unaffected by the deep divisions of the region – drawn together by the fact that all of their children have the special needs that Shalva is helping to meet.
It’s sad that it takes a special needs child to bring adults together like this. But maybe God‘s plan is bigger than something I can understand.
And I also saw the internationally famous Shalva Band, which is made up of eight young musicians with disabilities. The band has two blind lead singers, backed by musicians with Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, pervasive developmental disorders and other conditions.
One of the blind singers, Anael Khalifa, does a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that will rip your heart out. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, because the song is all about imagery that she will never see with her own eyes.
I saw the Shalva Band perform and participate in a panel on living life to the fullest regardless of disability during my visit to Shalva. I was part of a group of 630 high school students, chaperones, and dozens of adults from the U.S., Canada and Britain taking part in fundraising races – a marathon, half marathon, or 10K – to raise money for Shalva.
Shalva does great work and changes lives. Some Middle Eastern countries have no facilities at all for children with special needs. For example, Shalva recently provided early intervention assistance for a boy from Iraq for open-heart surgery. In war-torn Iraq, there are virtually no services for children with disabilities.
While the boy was recuperating from surgery, he attended Shalva for therapy on a biweekly basis. Shalva therapists also trained his caretakers to continue the therapy and provided them with the specialized clothes and toys that will help with his development.
To raise money for Shalva, I ran the Jerusalem half marathon on a Friday morning for Team Shalva. The race started at 6:45 a.m. Running for a few hours while my body clock was screaming “go to bed already!” because of the time difference between the U.S. East Coast and Israel wasn’t easy. But I finished the race, aided by lovely, low 60s weather and the encouragement of the Jerusalemites up early along the route.
I was impressed by Shalva’s new 200,000 square-foot, nine-story facility, complete with Olympic swimming pool, full-size basketball courts, and bedrooms. Why bedrooms? So that the kids Shalva serves can spend the night there once a week with their friends and favorite counselors, giving their harried parents a well-deserved weekly date night.
Jerusalem is all hills, which means the race is relentlessly up-and-down, up-and-down, clambering over the same hills where King David, the prophet Samuel, and Jesus once walked. And without the aid of water stations along their routes.
The route dips briefly behind the walls of the Old City and comes within a few hundred yards of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. As a longtime visitor to Israel, and having gone to a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem years earlier, these paths were familiar to me. I also saw parts of the city I had never seen, and ran through neighborhoods I thought I knew, but know better now, because of the race.
This October, Shalva will conduct another fundraiser – participants will head to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Count me in, and you can join me.
And if you’ve never been to Jerusalem, I don’t know what’s holding you back. You’re probably safer there than you are in most American cities. You can go any time, or you can get involved with Shalva and run in Jerusalem next fall.
And if you’ve never heard a blind girl singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” backed by a rockin’ band of young people with disabilities, you have no idea what you’re missing.