Visiting Special Needs Programs in Israel—Part I, Beit Issie Shapiro

As Americans, we tend to think to think that in general, our social service programs are the very best in the world, and that everyone else can learn from us. When it comes to special needs, at least for Jewish children and adults, there is much we can learn from Israel.

When our family was in Israel last spring, we visited two very different special needs programs in Israel that were simply amazing: Beit Issie Shapiro and Kibbutz Kishorit.

The first organization we went to was Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana., a comprehensive special needs center and national program started by a South African family in honor of their father, Issie Shapiro, whose life mission was to create compassionate, progressive programs for those with special needs.  We drove into the parking lot of the main campus a few days before Passover and were impressed right away with the outside playground being used at that moment by a group of Israeli Arab mothers and their children with disabilities. 

During our tour, we saw the therapeutic swimming pool in use as a training class in hydrotherapy for physical therapists from throughout Israel, early intervention classrooms very similar to what Danny had attended at age 3 or 4 (down to the same Picture Cards used to let the children know what activity was next), more outdoor play areas, and then the highlight of the tour, the Snoezelen Room. These very cool rooms contain beanbag chairs, a ball pit, low lighting, and special effects through special lights, vibroacoustic stimuli and deep sensory stimulation. It is both intriguing and relaxing at the same time. We had a very tough time dislodging Danny from the vibrating, singing beanbag chair. 

Beit Issie Shapiro introduced the Snoezelen concept to Israel (developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s), and has helped set up some 350 Snoezelen rooms in Israel and more than 1,300 professionals have been trained, which means almost as many Israelis have access to a Snoezelen room as they do to cell phones. In case you are wondering, the word comes from two Dutch words, “snuffelen” (to seek out, to explore) and “doezelen” (to doze, to snooze).

We avoided the on-site dental clinic, since Danny, like many children and adults with special needs, is hypersensitive regarding anything involving his lips and teeth, and he can spot a dental chair from across a football field. Our visits to the dentist with Danny here in Los Angeles are usually drama-packed, with howling, screaming, and kicking. The Beit Issie staff told us that they use the Snoezelen Room techniques to reduce anxiety levels of children with developmental disabilities and conducted a formal study to prove that the “duration of anxious behavior dropped from 23.44 minutes to 9.04 minutes” on average. (I don’t think I would have liked to been the person holding the stop watch for that study.) 

In addition to a therapeutic day care (up to age 12)  and after school treatments, Beit Issie is working hard to create accepting and involved communities , advocacy programs and they are working in partnership with others to improve the legal rights for those with disabilities. They provide family support with special outreach to fathers, grandparents and siblings. And they created the first accessible and inclusive park in Israel and as we saw, also work with Israeli Arabs who have children with disabilities. The list just goes on and on. 

Now, if we could only find that vibrating, musical beanbag chair…… 

Beit Issie Shapiro is holding their 5th International Conference this summer on the topic of “Learning from the Past Shaping the Future “Tel Aviv, Israel, 5-7 July, 2011, Dan Panorama Hotel. For more information, go to http