A great woman passed away suddenly last week in Jerusalem. Lifsha Feldman was only 45, but she had in the last decade of her life deeply touched the lives of hundreds of Jewish children with serious physical and mental disabilities and their families.
She was the daughter of a gadol – Rabbi Ephraim Zuravin; the daughter-in-law of a gadol – Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivas Ner Yisroel; and the wife of one of Eretz Yisrael's most distinguished young talmidei chachamim – Rabbi Shlomo Feldman, the author of important volumes on Seder Taharos. Yet the thousands who attended the levaya came because of Rebbetzin Feldman herself.
Black-cowled Yerushalmi women were seen hugging non-religious therapists at MESHI, the Jerusalem gan and school for children with serious disabilities founded by Lifsha Feldman, each trying to comfort the other. Simple Jews and gedolei Yisrael stood together sobbing along with the maspidim over the magnitude of the loss to Klal Yisrael and to her husband, ten children, parents, brothers and sisters. One young boy in a wheelchair asked his mother why he was being punished yet again with the loss of his beloved principal. It would have taken Rebbetzin Lifsha herself to answer that question.
Lisha Feldman's passing was as close to literal mesirus nefesh as we are likely to see in our times. She joyfully took on herself burdens and pressures that no normal person could bear. Even with 65% of the budget covered by the government, MESHI must raise $2 ½ million dollars a year, just to cover operating expenses. And that does not include the cost of building a new facility to serve the ever growing number of children in MESHI.
"He rak chashva al hazulat – She thought only about others," her husband repeated over and over in his hesped. She passed away around midnight. The next morning a delegation including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Education Minister Gidon Saar, Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, and Speaker of the Knesset Ruby Rivlin was scheduled to visit MESHI to discuss its financial needs. Rebbetzin Feldman had asked the staff to dress up in honor of the visitors, never dreaming that it would be for her own levaya instead that they would be dressing in holiday clothes.
MESHI's VERY EXISTENCE is nothing less than a miracle. Fourteen years ago, the Feldman's ninth child, Ruchama, was born with a serious heart defect that required surgery in France. During that surgery, she suffered a cerebral embolism that left her permanently brain-damaged, though that was not immediately recognized. Not until Ruchama was nine months old were the Feldmans informed by doctors at Hadassah Hospital that Ruchama had suffered irreversible brain damage. Even then, it did not fully sink in that even with all the investment of energy and money in the world, Ruchama would never be just like other children.
When she finally absorbed the message, however, Lifsha Feldman did not despair. Instead she determined that she would do everything possible to ensure that Ruchama reached her maximum potential. She began by forming a non-profit organization that raised money to supply extra therapies for a group of religious children within Jerusalem's Alyn Children's Hospital.
Three years later, she decided that was not enough. She went to all the existing institutions for children like Ruchama and determined that none were providing all the care and therapy that she wanted for her daughter. That led to her decision to open her own institution.
The announcement of that decision was greeted with scoffing and derision. The scoffers were more than justified. How could a mother of ten, with no experience in special education, or administration, or the Israeli bureaucracy, or fund-raising, create a state-of-the-art facility? (Until then, her work experience consisted solely of having run a nursery school in her home for fifteen years.)
Lifsha was advised to try to work within an existing institution for improvements. But she insisted on realizing her dream. MESHI opened its doors with 35 children. None of the staff were prepared to give up their previous jobs because none were convinced it would survive the year. Today it serves 180 children, and employs more than that number of staff, including therapists, social workers and psychologists.
The same goal that Lifsha Feldman set for Ruchama is the goal for every child in MESHI: that they reach their maximum potential, no matter how great or small. In some cases, that might mean just the ability to hold a spoon or sit in a chair, and for others, whose disabilities are physical rather than cognitive, that might mean eventual integration in regular schools. Each child's therapeutic program is "sewn to fit the child," not dictated by the number of therapies the Israeli government will cover.
I VISITED MESHI about half a year ago. Every square inch of space is utilized, and each room 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 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.
Mrs. Feldman related to each child as if they were own. Every morning, she stood outside greeting each transport bringing children to the school to make sure that they were removed from the vehicle gently. A neurologist who regularly examines the children at MESHI related that Mrs. Feldman could sit and discuss over 100 children at a time with him, without a file in front of her, with as much clarity as if she were discussing her own child.
A visit to MESHI has a way of putting many things in perspective. One's Modeh Ani cannot be the same Modeh Ani afterwards. Has your bank overdraft got you down? Try looking at a little boy left permanently impaired when a play accident severed a major artery and left his brain deprived of oxygen. Irritated by a child's failure to clean his or her room? Try imagining what it is like for parents who have to physically assist a child weighing sixty pounds or more with every basic activity, or to make sure that the child is never left unaccompanied for even a moment at home.
And yet it would be far from the case to say that a visit to MESHI is depressing -- just the opposite. 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. I could not help thinking that 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.
THE OVERWHELMING impression I left MESHI with is how much goodness and caring there exists in the world. And it was Lifsha Feldman who set that tone.
A few years ago, Israel Radio interviewed Mrs. Feldman. I have listened to that 40-minute interview at least three times. It is impossible to convey in words the impact of just her tone of voice. I have never heard the deep simchas chaim (joy in life) to be found in a life of ruchnios conveyed so well. There is something close to song in the calm and serenity with which she discusses the challenges of raising a severely handicapped child.
"It is easier for a religious family to accept something like this – or at least so I think – because they know that everything is directed from Above. Not just directed, but directed for our benefit," she tells the interviewer. For that reason, she and her husband never thought about bringing a malpractice suit or spent any time dwelling on the cerebral embolism Ruchama suffered in surgery. No point in questioning Hashem's dictates.
These words are spoken without a trace of bravado or of someone trying to convince themselves. She and her family have been fortunate, she tells the interviewer, in that it has been so easy to see the blessing from what happened to Ruchama: the hundreds of children who have benefited from MESHI as a result.
It is not just the children of MESHI who have gained, she says, but her own family as well. The children have learned to be more sensitive because of Ruchama, not to be embarrassed by disability, and that helping their sister and parents is an expected part of life. Ruchama's six-year-old younger sister told her mother at one point, "When you and Tatte can no longer take care of Ruchama, she'll go from one of our houses to the other."
The interviewer is totally captivated by Lifsha. Admitting the difficulty secular parents have raising one or two children, she asks, "What's it like to be the mother of ten?" "Nifla (wonderful)" is Lifsha's one word reply. She makes it sound easy. "Remember," she says, "they are all different ages. They don't all come home at the same time. The younger ones have their time when they come home. And the older children have theirs. And when the older boys come home from yeshiva, they also have their time."
O.K., she admits, maybe a mother of ten has to invest a little bit more energy and attention to make sure she doesn't miss anything with one of the children. But when she describes her joy at having the whole family – children and grandchildren – gathered around the Shabbos or Yom Tov table, and the feeling of absence if even one child is missing, she is utterly convincing. Her greatest joy, her husband told me at the shiva, was watching him learn with the children.
Lifsha Feldman lived at a very high level, and it comes across not just in what she says but the way she says it. Every time the interviewer cites some achievement of hers in MESHI or at home with the word, "You," she reflexively responds, "We," either in reference to the staff of the school or her family. One of her sons related in his hesped, how he was once sent to deliver a large sum of money and lost it. When he told his mother, she replied simply, "I accepted upon myself never to get angry about anything to do with money." Her husband confirmed at the shiva that this was not a one time occurrence.
One cannot listen to the interview without thinking that if every Jew in the world had a chance to meet Lifsha Feldman just once, the Jewish world would look much different. The interviewer asks at one point why MESHI serves both religious and non-religious children – meaning, "Why have you taken on the financial burden of helping non-religious children as well? "
"Lama lo – Why not?" she replies. There is no educational reason to separate these children, she says. As long as the parents don't have a problem with a school run by chareidim, we don't have any problem either.
Lifsha Feldman is irreplaceable. Her boundless love for all her children – her own and those of MESHI – was not of this world. But MESHI has long been a family project. Lifsha'a brother Asher Zuravin and mother Rebbetzin Hadassah Zuravin bear most of the fund-raising burden. Lifsha's sister and daughter both teach in MESHI. And they are all determined that the work for which Lifsha Feldman gave her life continue and that the children of MESHI continue to receive any and everything that can help them reach their potential -- not least of all overwhelming love.