Recently I visited MESHI, a Jerusalem gan and school for children with serious disabilities. Most suffer from cerebral palsy caused by oxygen deprivation during birth or some subsequent trauma. Others were born with spinal bifida. Few of the children can walk completely unaided, and many are confined to wheelchairs. (A number of children from MESHI, with minimal or no cognitive impairment, are mainstreamed into regular educational frameworks each year.)
I would recommend such a visit for everyone: It has a way of putting things in perspective. After such a visit, one's Modeh Ani cannot but be a different Modeh Ani.
Depressed by the stock market? Take a look at a little boy left permanently impaired when a play accident severed a major artery, and left his brain deprived of oxygen. Did you bank manager express his dismay at your spending habits? Remember the smiling little girl suffering from an irreversible degenerative condition.
Irritated by your child's failure to jump to clear the dishes from the table? Try imagining what its like for a parent to have to physically assist a child of thirty or more kilos with every basic activity, or to make sure that child is never unaccompanied during the hours that he or she is home.
NOT THAT A VISIT TO MESHI is depressing -- just the opposite. One's heart goes out to the children and to their parents, most of whom have to learn to deal with a severely disabled child, while raising many other children who also need plenty of parental attention and love. But the overwhelming impression one leaves with is how much goodness there is in the world. How much caring?
I always wondered why there seems to be a disproportionate number of young women in the Torah world training in special education. I came away from MESHI viewing the large number of young women in special education as one of the glories of our world. In every room – except those dedicated to particular therapies – there were six to eight children and an almost equal number of adults – a teacher and her assistant, together with various therapists and assistants to do the hands-on therapies.
The love and dedication evident on the faces of the young women working with the children was reflected by the children. Young women who derive such joy from working with children whom no amount of effort will ever make "normal" will surely make fantastic mothers. The patience needed to repeat exercises over and over again to develop motor or communication skills and the ability to appreciate every small advance that a child makes will serve them well with their own families.
PERHAPS THE MOST REMARKABLE THING about MESHI is that it exists at all. Twelve years ago, Ruchama Feldman was born with a rare heart defect that required immediate surgery. Prior to the surgery in France, the surgeon warned Ruchama's parents that cereberal embolisms during surgery are one of the potential dangers of such surgery on infants. Though Ruchama's heart was successfully repaired, her parents, Rabbi Shlomo and Lifsha Feldman slowly realized that she was not developing or responding to parental stimulus like their other children. Eventually, it became clear that she had suffered irreversible brain damage.
Ruchama is the Feldman's ninth child. Though Mrs. Feldman had studied special education in seminary, she had never worked in the field. Prior to Ruchama's birth, she ran a nursery school in her house for 15 years. She had no training or experience to prepare her to open an institution for children like Ruchama.
Yet she was driven by one thought: "I will not compromise on anything with regard to my daughter." Whatever could be done to help Ruchama reach her full potential, she would do.
Her first step was to start a non-profit organization to help children like Ruchama. But she had zero experience raising funds. Fortunately, her mother Rebbetzin Hadassah Zuravin, who had moved back to the United States, took on the major part of the burden. The monies raised were enough to support extra therapies for three classes of religious children within Jerusalem's Alyn Hospital.
After three years, Mrs. Feldman decided to start her own institution. The administration at Alyn Hospital laughed when she told them of her plans. She was advised not to even think about starting without half the first year's budget in hand. She started anyhow. At the first staff meeting of therapists, none were prepared to give up their other jobs, since no one was confident that MESHI would prove viable.
That was 8 years ago. MESHI opened its doors with 35 children. Today the infant facility, nursery school, and elementary school serve 180 children, and Mrs. Feldman has to turn away more than a 100 children a year.
MESHI's philosophy is the same that Mrs. Feldman applied to Ruchama: no compromise. Each child's program therapeutic program is "sewn to fit the child," not dictated by the number of therapies the Israeli government will cover.
That costs money, lots of money. Even with the Israeli government picking up 65% of the costs, MESHI must raise almost two and a half million dollars privately to cover operating expenses.
Each room in the main MESHI building is individualized. There are rooms for specific therapies – speech, physical (large motor), and occupational (small motor) -- and a "white room," which cost $70,000, to trigger sensory development.
The amount of equipment is mind-boggling. The exercise room in the school has more treadmills and elliptical machines than most Jerusalem gyms. In one room, I saw two specially-designed vests like those used by astronauts in weightlessness. They are used as part of a new therapy developed in Poland. Each costs several thousand dollars. The oversized tricycle I saw a 12-year-old boy pedaling on in the school playground cost $4,000. In one classroom, each child has a specially designed computer, which they use to communicate. One boy can only move his cursor via a specially-rigged sensor attached to his ears.
Looking back, Lifsha Feldman sees Ruchama – today a very happy girl, seemingly unaware of her own limitations, as having played a major role in building her family. Each of the Feldman children grew up with regular responsibilities for Ruchama. Two of Mrs. Feldman's brothers help her in running the school, and her mother is still the principal fundraiser, mostly by phone while commuting between Lakewood and work in Boro Park.
MESHI testifies to the irresistible power of the love of a Jewish mother – and grandmother.