A community, in wheelchairs, under fire

A community, in wheelchairs, under fire

At ALEH Negev in Ofakim, residents have severe disabilities and most cannot walk. When the sirens sound, it’s up to their staff to keep them safe

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Herring with one of the residents of ALEH Negev. (photo credit: courtesy Talya Herring)
Herring with one of the residents of ALEH Negev. (photo credit: courtesy Talya Herring)

In Ofakim, a sand-choked, barren community minutes from the Gaza border, residents have just 30 seconds when they hear a red-alert siren to run and find cover. For able-bodied members of this impoverished community, that’s precious little time.

But what about those who can’t run?

At ALEH Negev, a state-of-the-art rehabilitative village for Israeli citizens with severe disabilities, it’s a serious question. Most of the residents at ALEH Negev, which gleams like a spaceship in the middle of Ofakim’s brown desert, use wheelchairs and cannot walk on their own. Many cannot speak, use their limbs or practice motor functions without assistance.

ALEH Negev is the largest of Israel’s four ALEH campuses, all of which serve the special-needs. There are 133 residents living here, ranging from young adults to 50-year-olds, with round-the-clock care provided by 150 trained staff members. Over the past week, as rocket fire from Gaza pounded Israel from north to south and border cities like Ofakim observed the brunt of the nonstop fire, daily routines here like physical therapy and arts and crafts were shattered by sirens and stress. When a red-alert siren rings in a place like ALEH, its threat has special fangs.

“The residents here really react to the staff,” says Masada Sekely, the village’s director. “If the staff is calm and knows how to handle the situation, then the residents are too. They work on feedback, and all their emotions come from the staff that works with them. We are actually more focused on keeping our staff strong than the residents.”

ALEH Negev’s full name is ALEH Negev-Nachalat Eran, and chaired by Maj. Gen. (res) Doron Almog, one of the most celebrated figures in the history of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1976, Almog helped lead the famed Israeli hostage rescue at Entebbe and for years after, as head of the IDF’s Southern Command, foiled countless attempts to launch terror attacks in Israel.

Almog bears a difficult and definitive family legacy, having lost his brother Eran, a tank commander, during the Yom Kippur War, as well as his son, also named Eran, to Castleman’s disease.

The elder Eran, it is believed, was abandoned by his fellow soldiers in the face of approaching enemy forces, and bled out alone in his tank in a slow, agonizing death. Years later, when Almog’s first son was born with severe autism and developmental handicaps, the general decided to not only name the child after his lost brother, but to apply a mantra he had adopted in the military to his philosophy for the child’s care.

“The same value that leads us in the military, to never leave a wounded soldier behind, we need to say over and over to ourselves,” Almog says. “We have the statement, kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh (all Jews are responsible for one another), but in life, the biggest slogans are tested on the ground.”

An ALEH child and his caregiver (photo credit: courtesy Aleh)
An ALEH child and his caregiver (photo credit: courtesy Aleh)

The center was built in 2003 for an estimated price tag of $42 million, the vast majority of which came from Jewish donors abroad. The massive facility boasts a hydrotherapy center; a petting zoo hopping with rabbits, chinchillas and turtles; a horseback riding center; and a Snoezelen, a radical, controlled multi-sensory room awash in white leather and colored lights. The place is a dream home for those with severe disabilities, and in many ways it was built from scratch so that Almog’s son Eran could live in peace and happiness among his peers.

In the past two weeks, there have been hundreds of rockets lobbed at ALEH Negev and its surroundings. As a result, staffers are now sleeping in shifts and have been fortified by a handful of volunteers who are making sure than in addition to feeding the residents and caring for their health and hygiene, they are also available at a second’s notice to wheel them into safe rooms and keep them calm.

“Some of the residents understand what’s going on and know what the siren is and know how to get to the bomb shelter, but a lot of them don’t. And it’s a lot of wheelchairs to move,” says Talya Herring, a 20-year-old San Diego native who made aliyah last year and has been a volunteer at ALEH Negev ever since. “The shelters get very crowded, but we just make it work. When we hear the alarm, we know what to do, we’re really well organized, and we make sure the residents are safe.”

Ron Rabinovich, a 54-year-old Israeli who lives in Long Island, has a long history of volunteering with ALEH, and when the current conflict broke out, he couldn’t stay away. He flew to Israel and has joined Herring, the ALEH staff and the other volunteers making sure that every single resident is safe and accounted for in the event of a rocket from Gaza.

Doron Almog puts a medal on a child from ALEH Jerusalem child at the Jerusalem Marathon. (photo credit: courtesy Aleh)
Doron Almog puts a medal on a child from ALEH Jerusalem child at the Jerusalem Marathon. (photo credit: courtesy Aleh)

That means that the residents who have the physical and emotional ability to sleep on mattresses inside of the safe rooms, which exist in the center of every residential building at ALEH Negev, are already there when sirens go off. Others, who react adversely to crowded spaces, who either can’t cooperate or who are too loud during the night, sleep in their own beds. It’s up to the volunteers to make sure they are awake and alert when a siren sounds and bring those residents to join their peers in the safe rooms.

During the day, when the endless siren blares can be relentless, volunteers try to take residents out in small groups for short periods at a time, so they can enjoy fresh air and exercise and a semblance of normality.

Rabinovich’s goal, he says, is to bolster the staff of ALEH, whom he calls extraordinary.

“The residents, they have no choice,” he says. “They didn’t pick this place. Somebody else picked it for them and most of the time they don’t understand where they are. But the staff, they had a choice. They could have chosen other places to work, places that are much less stressful and demanding. But they didn’t, and that says a lot.”

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