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In Lod, a community brings ‘love thy neighbor’ to a special needs bachelor pad

A new kind of mainstreamed living situation for adults with disabilities is being launched by a group of people who have not always been welcomed by their other neighbors

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A Purim carnival in February 2019, one of the many activities created by the Lod Garin Torani community in Lod. (Courtesy Lod Garin Torani)
A Purim carnival in February 2019, one of the many activities created by the Lod Garin Torani community in Lod. (Courtesy Lod Garin Torani)

LOD — When Jerusalem-based entrepreneur Udi Marili went looking for a community to adopt an experimental apartment where six young men with developmental disabilities would live on their own for the first time, there was one place that stood out.

In many ways, Lod Garin Torani has always stood out, oftentimes controversially. A tight-knit group of hundreds of religious-Zionist families, the community has been praised by some for attempting to bolster the working class Jewish-Arab mixed city, but also criticized for failing to integrate into the wider urban fabric.

But a tight-knit community of people looking to volunteer their time and more to help others is exactly what Marili was looking for.

“What I keep coming back to is how the community really wanted this, that’s what amazes me the most,” said Marili, who held organizational meetings in Lod at 9 p.m., and was amazed that a dozen or more of the Lod Garin members would show up, tired after a long day of work and family, but ready to work. “That’s the real change here.”

Within the first month of moving into the apartment in the city’s Neve Zayit neighborhood, the six roommates had gotten help from neighbors with plumbing issues and were getting invited out for Shabbat meals.

The six live with a rotating roster of counselors for support in the evening hours, going out each day to work or study, and are mainstreamed into the community in which they live.

“It’s not just geographical, it’s making sure they’re really part of the community,” said Marili, a serial social entrepreneur who has created other projects for adults with autism and psychological disorders. Marili conceived of the idea for the apartment and worked with the Social Welfare Ministry and the local Lod community to establish the apartment.

Illustrative: Gal, left, makes candles at the Shekel workshop on November 28, 2011, one of many Israeli organizations that offers employment or housing for adults with special needs (Courtesy Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)

This mainstreamed apartment in Lod is part of a larger Social Welfare Ministry plan to create apartments for people with disabilities, integrating them into the larger community and having them take part in community life.

It is a shift from the current model of hostels or apartments for special needs adults run by various organizations around Israel, where residents live with counselors and go out to work or study during the day, but usually do not integrate much with the community or neighborhood in which they live.

‘We don’t want them living in a bubble in a community’

Marili’s hope is that the supportive community and network of neighbors will enable independence for the young men, and a new paradigm of communal living for the enclave of families.

“We don’t want them living in a bubble in a community, but have to figure out how to get the community to take responsibility and we needed the right community,” he said.

The Lod Garin Torani is part of Keren Kehillot, an umbrella organization of religious communities, and is working on the inclusion apartment with Makom-JNF, a coalition of communities and people focused on revitalizing towns, villages and cities in disadvantaged areas — usually in the Galilee or Negev, but also in poorer cities near the center of the country.

There are Garin Torani communities all over the country, usually started with the ideological aim of bringing or bolstering religious Jewish life in towns where there are few religious Jews. Tensions are not uncommon.

Rabbi Yisrael Samet, who leads the Garin Torani in the city of Lod, which recently added a mainstreamed apartment of adults with special needs to its community (Courtesy Facebook screengrab)

Lod isn’t a simple place, said Rabbi Yisrael Samet, who has lived there for 15 years and leads the community. The city of 77,000 is about two-thirds Jewish and one-third Arab, and has suffered from serious drug and organized crime issues. It is also one of the poorest in the Tel Aviv area. In 2018, the average monthly salary in Lod was NIS 8,600 ($2,500), about NIS 2,100 below the national average.

Located just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Tel Aviv, and next to Ben-Gurion airport, the city is well situated as a bedroom community for young middle-class families. But the municipality has seen the city’s middle-class residents flee to nearby Modi’in and other up and coming towns. The Garin, which began 25 years ago, came in response to the city’s effort to attract educated, middle-class people.

Many of the Garin residents live in modern-looking apartment towers bunched together that stand out from the apartment blocks and small single-family homes or duplexes, many of them in disrepair, that make up the rest of the city. In one neighborhood, apartments were only offered for sale to religious Jews.

The Lod neighborhood of Ramat Elyashiv, on the right, where some apartments were only offered for sale to religious Jews. (Screen capture: Google Street View)

Some locals have accused the group of parachuting in without doing enough to integrate into the wider community.

“They’re settlers,” said Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, of the Garin. “They act like settlers, with big flags on their homes.”

The Abraham Initiatives, which works to build a shared future for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, has offices in Lod.

There has to be a delicate balance in mixed cities, said Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, one that is inherent to the ability to live equally and in harmony, and that’s become more difficult in Lod, where there are now far more Jews than Arabs.

There are some positive outcomes from the Garin’s presence in Lod, he said, including activities run for Arab residents by Garin members in local community centers. But for the most part, the two groups keep to themselves and maintain an uneasy equilibrium, he said.

“They get that if the tension rises, it won’t be good and they have to preserve life the way it is,” said Be’eri-Sulitzeanu. “But deep inside, no one loves the other side.”

A woman in Lod on September 22, 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Samet said he is familiar with the sentiment, but pushed back against the characterization.

“When you bring religious Jews, people thought we were settlers and were here to push out the Arabs,” said Rabbi Samet. “It was nothing like that, it’s very far from the reality.”

The idea was to bring people who would come for ideological reasons and would help enrich and strengthen the city, he said.

Samet described the residents as a special group of people, “a tolerant group,” he added. “It started with a group of idealists and that’s very much part of our DNA.”

Now with the 1,200 families spread throughout several Lod neighborhoods, the Garin engages in every kind of activity, from communal Friday night meals, Passover seders and holiday meals put together for city residents in four areas of the city, a variety of study programs for all kinds of learning, activities for teens and kids, and support for one another during times of stress, particularly during the last 10 months of the coronavirus.

Mainstreaming an apartment for adults with special needs was something the Lod Garin had long considered.

“We’re the right kind of place for this,” said Benny Prinz, one of the Lod Garin residents who is active in the mainstreamed apartment project. “The people who live here want to live in this community, they are looking for something else, they want more than just regular life.”

Before creating the apartment, Marili and community members undertook a broad visioning process regarding mainstreaming people with special needs and to consider what community responsibility entails. From that came a working group of 50 people, including appointing adoptive families for each of the residents, and getting their teenagers involved as well.

Once the team had found an apartment for rent in Lod’s Neve Zayit neighborhood, they canvassed the neighbors, knocking on every door to let them know who was moving in.

Not all the neighbors are part of the Garin, and there were some cockeyed eyebrows and questions, said Shlomit Schweitzer, a Lod Garin resident who is now the coordinator for the mainstreamed apartment. “It’s a process that takes time,” she said.

There is a certain dissonance in going to great lengths to set up a normal situation, said Tal Rokach, who has lived in Lod for 16 years with her husband and six children.

Lod’s Garin Torani teens are deeply involved in their community’s communal efforts, and their parents want them to take an active part in the mainstreamed apartment of special needs adults who moved into Lod in 2020. (Courtesy Lod Garin Torani)

“You want the guys to feel a part of this place, but we have to plan for that,” she said. “There’s a gap, and you have to be aware of that.”

Still, much depends on the four young men themselves, and how much they want to be part of the larger community. So far, all six roommates reported through their counselors that they like their adoptive families and the way they care for them.

“I have more friends,” said one of the residents, who preferred not using his name. He said there’s more of an emphasis on arriving on time and leaving on time, and his new living situation includes a lot of attention paid to how much he eats and drinks every day.

‘We don’t just want to do acts of loving-kindness for them, but to live with them’

It is a very real kind of caregiving, but even so, the six roommates do not always want to hang out with their neighbors.

“The guys don’t always want our company,” said Schweitzer. “Sometimes they just want to be alone.”

Now that the Lod apartment has been established, Marili is working on a similar setup for an apartment for young women with special needs in Lod, as well as similar apartments in Kiryat Malachi and Maaleh Adumim. He’s also got plenty of work to do in Lod.

“It’s a lesson in progress, and we’ll make mistakes,” said Marili. “Learning together is the best way to do this, as things will come up and we’ll have to figure out how to proceed.”

The coronavirus, for example, has thrown the project for a loop, with the roommates now at home during a two-week, countrywide lockdown and some of their nearest and most supportive neighbors in quarantine.

Cars lineup at a Clalit Health Services drive-thru coronavirus testing site in the central city of Lod, October 16, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“The coronavirus kind of froze our dreams of community,” said Reut Tzuriel, a member of the Garin who is closely involved with the apartment, “but this is just normal neighborliness, we just have to say yes and then figure it out.”

Once things get back to normal, Samet said he wants the mainstreamed apartment to be a seamless part of his community, with the men helping make a quorum for prayer services or helping put together a beit midrash [house of study].

“We don’t just want to do acts of lovingkindness for them, but to live with them,” he said. “It’s good for us, it’s good for our kids, it’s about being human and being part of the world. We can live in harmony together.”

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