In an idyllic mountainous region in the Galilee, a veritable Garden of Eden for special needs integration may soon crop up on the landscape: Last month, Israel’s top building committee approved land for a community called Shibolet, a town designed for a mixed population of Israeli families and high-functioning special needs adults, clearing a major hurdle in its development.
The vision, years in the making, would bring in its first stages some 50 families – most of whom have no immediate family members with special needs – and dozens of special needs adults, selected by the Welfare Ministry and the National Insurance Institute. The community will employ the special needs adults alongside its workers in the local services, and in agricultural tourism.
The families — who are mostly, but not exclusively Orthodox — will adopt the “tenants,” opening their homes to them, while the separate living will safeguard their independence and privacy. And all community events, ceremonies, and gatherings will bring all the residents of the community together, offering an unprecedented level of integration and equality that the grassroots organizers maintain is only possible in a place designed from the get-go as an “integration village.”
“The principle is to create the maximum integration possible,” said Ofir Shick, the head of the Shibolet union, stressing that professional input from special education specialists was factored into every inch of the community design.
Part therapy retreat, but mostly normal Israeli rural community, Shick said the town has every fourth construction lot earmarked for apartments for its special needs residents, each of which will house between four and eight people who are on the autism spectrum or have other cognitive disabilities.
“If you enter for a tour of Shibolet, you won’t know where the town begins, the institution ends, and vice versa,” he said.
The project began several years ago, when Shick and his wife were living in Rosh Tzurim, a kibbutz in the Gush Etzion bloc. An integration program was introduced to Rosh Tzurim several years after the kibbutz’s founding. But not all the community members were on board.
“Naturally, it created conflicts, alongside the very positive aspects,” he said.
Slowly, along with several other families who had some connection to the field of special education, the idea of a new community designed for the explicit goal of integration gradually took form.
Reviving an older community plan by the name of Shibolet in 2004, the idea tumbled through the various housing committees and nightmarish bureaucratic red tape, ultimately receiving government backing, including by the Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar and former housing minister Uri Ariel in 2014. Then, last month, the Interior Ministry’s National Council for Planning and Building appropriated the land for the community. The project was approved unanimously after an earlier vote had been previously pushed off amid objections by residents of nearby Turan and a dispute over the regional jurisdiction of the land.
Hailing the vote, Minister Silvan Shalom said he was “honored” to oversee its passage.
“The strength of a nation is not measured by the number of its weapons in its possession, but rather in its ability to assist a weak population during day-to-day life,” boasted Interior Ministry Director-General Orna Hozman at the time.
Shick said that after initial objections by environmentalists, the vote passed unanimously, “to our delight.”
While the appropriation marks a major milestone for Shibolet, the process will still take some time before construction gets started.
Offering a prediction “between optimistic and realistic,” Shick said he “hopes to see tractors on the ground in two years.”
How it works
The community plan, developed in coordination with special education professionals, envisions in its first stages to incorporate some 50 families and one or two apartments of special need tenants. Those numbers are projected to ultimately reach 270 families, and about 120 high-functioning adults.
All of the special needs adults will be assigned to two-three adoptive families, who will see to their day-to-day needs, invite them to meals, take them to doctor appointments, and keep in touch with their biological families, Shick said.
On a communal level, all events will be open to all members of the community, and a special committee will evaluate whether the tenants are fit to stand on the local councils. Employment will be available to the tenants, alongside other “normative” residents, in the local businesses – from the grocery store to the mail delivery – as well as a section of “agricultural tourism.”
“The tourism aspect gives them the interactions with people, something that is very important to us, very good for both sides – both for the people meeting them, and for them, of course,” said Shick. “The agricultural side gives them a whole dimension of understanding a process – something that is very beneficial for them.”
The name, Shibolet, drawn from the original plans, is not set in stone and will likely be put up for a community vote, he said. Still, some people have read the Hebrew word for integration – shiluv – in it, he added.
In describing the semi-utopian structure of the plan, with various facilities for therapy, Shick emphasizes that the integration model cannot be imposed on an existing town, since it demands total communal consensus. The residents must “know, in advance, from the beginning, what they’re getting in to,” he stresses, both to ensure there is no friction, and to foster agreement on issues like the local budget and allocating resources.
Still, Shick emphasized, there has been an “incredible demand” by families seeking to join. A tenants union has capped the number of new families at 50, but Schick added that some 150 people have been in contact about joining. Moreover, the assignment is out of his hands: the Welfare Ministry and National Insurance Institute will have the final say on which families are accepted.
Most of the families seeking to join are religious and have no immediate relatives with special needs, he said.
All the families will have to go through a local vetting process before they are approved to join the town.
“We assume there will be a relatively high percentage of religious families, but it isn’t necessarily a religious community,” he said.
Meanwhile, in anticipation, every three to six months, the families in the union meet up for a seminar on special education, and are being “trained” to live in Shibolet, Shick said.
People “want to create a model of giving, and – by the way – of receiving,” said Shick, describing the project as mutually beneficial and hugely rewarding.
“I can talk about integration from here to Yerucham,” he continued, referring to a city in southern Israel. But if you live this life, he added, pointing to his biological children as an example, you’re simply “a different person. It enters your DNA. It transforms from a slogan to a way of life.”