In Israel, cutting edge help for visually impaired kids


Strolling among the young children playing on ELIYA’s vibrant and colorful campus in Petah Tikva, just outside Tel Aviv, feels, for an instant, like a visit to any well-run preschool. But ELIYA is that and more — a preschool for blind and visually impaired children designed to assist their growth and development through programs ranging from classroom teaching to hydrotherapy.

ELIYA (pronounced eh-LEE-yah), the acronym for The Israeli Association for the Advancement of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, serves more than 100 children, infants to mid-teens, through its various programs. The organization’s three branches, located in Petah Tikva, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva, offer mommy-and-me classes and a daily preschool program for children (ages 1-3), while ELIYA’s summer camps and retreats bring blind or visually impaired older children together with family, friends and volunteers.

At ELIYA’s main branch in Petah Tikva, coordinator of resource development Orly Layzer pointed out features that reflect the careful consideration behind every aspect of the schools’ approach. For example, the color scheme — white and red — offers a contrast, which children with partial vision can discern and use to orient themselves. Classroom floors are divided into three tactile parts — wood, carpet and rubber — so children can use their sense of touch to find their way around the classroom. The same principle applies to the playground, where a little boy was able to keep his toy truck within the bounds of a gravel area by pulling back whenever he encountered a surface that felt foreign.

The hydrotherapy center provides another means for the children to work on their sense of orientation and comfort in new environments. ELIYA also provides rehabilitative horseback riding, offering blind and visually impaired children an enjoyable way to improve their navigational abilities and develop steadiness and balance.

ELIYA’s chadar choshech (dark room), helps pinpoint what, if any, vision a child has. Computers, glow-in-the-dark stars and even disco balls become the sole source of light in the room, allowing teachers and therapists to track a child’s eyesight. Then, having identified the limits of the field of vision, staff can help a child maximize abilities. Teacher-child ratios are at most 1-to-2, and ELIYA individualizes its program for each child.

This degree of specialization is what ELIYA executive director Michael Segal considers key to accomplishing ELIYA’s goals. “We want to help children with visual impairments to become more independent people…. It’s a different concept for philanthropy — a philanthropy of excellence,” he said.

Segal uses a Hebrew phrase, mitztainut lo miskainut (which roughly translates as “excellence not pity”), to express ELIYA’s mission. The organization also works hard to accommodate a diverse religious population. The Jerusalem branch, for instance, serves Orthodox and secular Jews as well as Muslims and Christians, and tries to provide for the needs and observances of each.

Segal began volunteering for ELIYA in 1984, in response to an advertisement he saw in a local Israeli newspaper. His involvement grew, and in 1991 he took on the role of executive director, his current post. Segal has never taken a salary for his ELIYA work, and in 2005 he received the President’s Award for Volunteerism. But he humbly deflects questions about this choice. “I wanted to continue the work, and I was able to…. I grew up with the notion of wanting to do for the community,” he said.

ELIYA hopes soon to have an interactive Web site where parents and the general public can access information about the blind and visually impaired.

Another special program is ELIYA’s summer camp for visually impaired children. Some attendees (ages 5-13) are past graduates of ELIYA’s preschool program, but others come from different parts of the country. Together with volunteers, they participate in a full range of regular camp activities — arts and crafts, sports, cooking, nature trips and music.

Segal told a story of one graduate whom he met on an air force base years after he’d left the school. Despite his visual impairment, this graduate now held an extremely sensitive job in the army. It felt wonderful, egal said, to see the young man had carved out a rewarding niche for himself.

ELIYA-USA will honor Maury and Lisa Friedman with its 2008 Visionary Award on Nov. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Sabra Seduction


It was an offer I could refuse — but only for a short time. Yaniv was his name, and his sweet entreaty epitomized the dating habits of the macho, cocky Israeli man (can you say caveman with a cell phone and Chanel sunglasses?). He cunningly wanted to prepare hot cocoa for me in his apartment.

Actually, in his room.

More accurately, on his bed.

I declined, but was coaxed into this little setup before the week was out.

As an Israeli whose life was split between Israel and America in the familial and environmental sense, I have the pleasure of viewing both worlds as a foreigner and native. When it comes to Israeli men vs. American men, I am a big advocate of my Mediterranean-blooded counterparts.

Israeli men seem to have confidence imbedded in their DNA. Maybe it’s from the army, or perhaps it’s the carpe diem syndrome. Maybe it’s outright self-destructiveness. Either way, Israeli guys know how to approach a woman and make her feel like God has descended upon her.

I attribute this approach to an unfair advantage Israeli men have over their American counterparts when it comes to courting Israeli women (can you really call hot cocoa on his bed courting?). Let’s face it, when people have the same life experiences — dealing with an aggressive public, terror attacks, army service, chocolate milk in a plastic bag — they can more easily relate to one another. So Israeli men already have a pretty good idea of the background of their potential prey.

This knowledge inevitably detracts from the taunting image of the unapproachable, mysterious woman on a pedestal, at least somewhat, and results in a boosted sense of chutzpah.

But Israeli men’s confidence is a quality that proves enticing to at least some of those being pursued. If you believe in yourself, others will believe in you — if by nothing more than mere trickery. Every woman loves a man who knows what he’s doing, and Israeli men, even if they don’t know what they’re doing, will never admit it. They approach a woman like they approach the toilet — with conviction and purpose. Women, even new age feminists, can appreciate this quality.

Yet the Israeli brand of macho can sometimes go overboard. Sometimes, and quite often, the Israeli man is considered too cocky and overconfident, an incorrigible flirt and womanizer. Israeli men offer deals — “You come here and I will pamper you with chocolate.” It seems archaic, even primitive, but that kind of confidence can really melt away at a woman’s reserves.

Confidence, unfortunately, is not a word I would use to describe American men. Their approach is subtle; they are over-intellectualized and fearful of trespassing on the female sense of liberty. They want to make a woman feel as an equal. If I wanted to feel like an equal, I would date women.

The beauty in a female-male relationship is that your femininity or masculinity is enhanced by the mere presence of something so different than yourself. American men seem to have forgotten this, and with it their manliness has atrophied.

I like American men because they are the product of an over-analytical society, and sometimes this comes in handy. They are willing to change their opinions. Nothing is ever black and white. They don’t eat meat. They are sensitive to racial equality. They cook and clean.

Yaniv is a carnivorous lug who can’t get enough of his Iraqi mother’s cooking. To him, everything is simpler than how I make it seem. He turns my poetry into prose.

Me: “I feel like I am floating off the air with no one to help me come down.”

Him: “You’re just lonely.”

Me: “I had this image of pierced holes in my back.”

Him: “You were just scared.”

When he brings down my elaborate metaphors to three-word sentences, everything seems clarified. He is almost always right.

To American women, Israeli men are gruff, too adventurous and too set in their ways to accommodate those who don’t know how to not take them seriously. Israeli women, on the other hand, know how to manage.

Israeli women are a breed of their own, too. Strongminded, highly opinionated, no BS and, for the most part, pragmatic. I have an Israeli friend who is dating an American man and her chief complaint is, almost always, “He’s not hard enough.” I translate that on several levels — emotionally, intellectually and, well….

Ultimately, it’s more a matter of personality than anything else. A relationship with either an American or an Israeli both require the common denominator that unites us all and transcends any national barriers — love.

As for Yaniv, the big lug has become quite a sweet guy, no doubt because of my good influences and perhaps his “Americanization.” And by the way, he’s graduated from hot cocoa to latte.

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