“I am privileged to write about my experiences in what can only be described as a HaMakom HaKodish, which means a sacred place in Hebrew.

I returned to Israel in February 2016, first to Tzfat to “land” surrounded by many friends, and eventually to Haifa.  I came to Haifa knowing only one person, Rabbi Naama, a lovely woman who plays a leadership role at the synagogue where I belong, Ohel Avraham (Abraham’s Tent), and as one of the rabbis at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa.

Haifa is a lovely place with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other.  I live between them in an apartment that overlooks the sea and is less than a ten-minute walk from the beach.

When I came to Israel, although “semi-retired,” (primarily due to ill health), I was clear in my own mind about how I envisioned my future life here.  It would not be one of “lying on the sand and/or attending book clubs,” though both of those pleasures are lovely in their own setting.

No, what I wanted was to give of myself in some way.  I wanted to give back to Israel and to become a part of the intense and intricate fabric of her society.  I wanted to give my art, in some way, to those who might benefit.  I was not certain of any details, of course, but this desire was in my heart and prayers.

My prayers could not have been more perfectly answered.  Through many little twists and turns, one month after arriving in Haifa I found Gan Hayeled, or perhaps it found me?  This incredible center services the special needs community in the region known as Mercaz Hacarmel. Gan Hayeled is situated in the middle of a lovely garden named Gan HaEm (the mother’s garden in Hebrew) and is directly adjacent to the Haifa Zoo, which plays a therapeutic role in animal therapy at Gan HaYeled.

Gan HaYeled supports at least 125 children and adults who have severe mental challenges, as well as some physical challenges that oftentimes occur along with these diseases.

Every day, at 2:45 in the afternoon, the “principal” of the center, Shai Goren, and his staff of fewer than eight teachers at any given time meet two busloads of children who come to the center to enjoy life in the afternoon. 

In July of 2016, the first time I watched the children get off the bus—some shouting Shai’s name and running to give him a “high 5,” some unable to walk without assistance, and some who will never speak—I was breathless, and it was love at first sight.  I had no idea at that time what a role Gan HaYeled would play in my life, nor mine in the lives of the children, but I knew that this was the answer to my deepest prayers.

Now at Chanukah time, I am so honored to be working with art classes for children and adults at the center.  From those on the autism spectrum to Down’s Syndrome to those with mental challenges for which I am not privy to know the diagnosis, every soul at this center has much to teach us about the richness of life, about happiness, about who we are as a people.  They are the angels among us, so many silent and unable to speak their heart, and yet many are able to speak the language without words, through the gift of art, and to communicate with others outside of their world who can never truly know what it is to suffer severe disabilities in life.

Each night that I leave Gan HaYeled, I take with me another story of courage from another child, another adult.  The same thing happens each time I sit with an assembly of children or adults before they go to different classrooms to experience music, dance, ceramics, storytelling and now art.  When they assemble as one group of people, each person is accepted as a member of a single family.  There is no one there who will bully or make fun.  They all understand that they need each other in this world they share.

Disability is a great equalizer, and if more heads of state would visit this microcosm of society, perhaps there would indeed be peace.  Of those who are assisted at Gan HaYeled, at least one third are of Arab descent, one-third are Jewish, and a third are Christian.  Nationality and religion don’t enter into a place where there is only love.”