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Diamonds in a Community

By Rachel Cohen

For many individuals with disabilities or special needs, life can be an uphill battle. But in Israel’s Galilee region, Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) is helping make that steep climb a more forgiving and rewarding one.

Each year the Jewish world recognizes the month of February as Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), and JNF, along with its partners in Israel, works tirelessly to assist various communities with disabilities or special needs throughout the country to integrate into their surroundings and society, and to enjoy a better quality of life.

Like many young women, Hodaya’s perfectly manicured bright red fingernails give her a quiet sense of joy when she peers down at them. A delicate white flower emblazoned on one of her index fingers even elicits a quick laugh when asked about it, and if it wasn’t for an unexpected complication during her mother’s pregnancy, Hodaya’s manicure wouldn’t be the single obvious commonality with women her age. However, Hodaya was born with cerebral palsy, and as such, she has spent her life confined to a wheelchair.

For those unaccustomed to interacting with individuals with disabilities, Hodaya can be seen as someone different and unusual. She spends her days at Ma’arag, a nonprofit that offers a safe haven for people with disabilities and is part of six other sites operating under Kochav Hatzafon—a network of nonprofits that help people with disabilities develop skills so they can interact with society, and for some, obtain an independent and self-sufficient life outside of the center’s tastefully decorated walls.

Ma’arag is also a member of Western Galilee Now (WGN), a consortium of small businesses in Israel’s Western Galilee and an important part of Jewish National Fund’s Go North initiative, which aims to develop the region’s infrastructure and tourism industry, and ultimately bring 300,000 new residents to the area.

“I call it social tourism,” Michal Shiloah Galnoor, CEO of WGN said. “The importance of integrating business enterprises that employ people with disabilities is critical to us as an organization, and in recent years, thanks to JNF’s experience in working with people with disabilities and special needs, the north has developed education, housing, and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.”

For the past two decades, Ma’arag’s employees and volunteers have worked hard to change the conventional mindset society has regarding individuals with special needs and disabilities. Their site’s work is two-fold: participants are taught a marketable skill that can hopefully help secure future employment in the long-term, and they bring community members to the facility so interacting with people with disabilities becomes a natural experience.

“We try to put the disabilities aside and focus on what they are able to do,” said Etti Ohev Zion, a volunteer at Ma’arag. “We find the most appropriate skill a person can do and help them master it to the best of their ability. There is no other place like this.”

When touring the halls of the facility, its uniqueness is evident. Gone are florescent lights and drab colors that define many government-funded facilities for people with special needs. Instead, the complex is warm and inviting with calming blue turquoise painted walls, wooden swans decorating the hallways, and an open-door mentality for nearly every room. The open-door mentality is meant literally, as the center provides both a coffee shop and event hall for members of Kfar Vradim—the small village where Ma’arag is located.

“The idea was for people with disabilities to interact with society, but this isn’t always possible in terms of accessibility. So instead of bringing the disabled to the community, we bring the community to them,” Ruth Goffer, CEO of Kochav Hatzafon, said. “Working with our patients is like being with the diamonds of our community,” she beemed.

And as for perfectly manicured Hodaya? She volunteers in one of the two computer rooms located on the premises and narrates the videos made on site. She, like many in Ma’arag, dreams of making her own way beyond the complex’s walls. “Like everyone, I want a family and a partner. I hope to be able to leave here and find my own way, but this is a comforting stop on my journey,” she revealed, adding that she hopes she can secure administrative work in data entry once she becomes self-sufficient.

This yearning to be a productive member of society is something the Kishor Winery knows well. The winery, which is located on the Kishorit Kibbutz, offers people with special needs the opportunity to have an organized framework, develop a skill, and create a social network so they can lead as normative a life as possible.

Kishorit employs 170 people with special needs and offers them various options for work, such as tending to the vegetable garden, the dairy farm, and, of course, its winery.

Yair Una, the winery’s marketing manager, believes the stigma surrounding the perception of individuals with disabilities lies squarely with normative society at large. “They can interact with everyone; it’s the rest of society that has problems interacting with them. They see themselves as normal,” he said.

Standing tall among the vines is Yaron, a Kishor Winery employee with special needs. An avid guitar player and marathon runner with plans to enroll in Iron Man, he has not let his disability prevent him from achieving his dreams. “The winery is like my home. It’s my heart and I have my peace and quiet here,” he said proudly, before glancing at the wine glass in his hand, and adding, “For me, this is worth four marathons.”

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