August 19, 2019

Red Alerts and People with Disabilities

Imagine that you are the parent of a child with cerebral palsy who can’t walk, or is highly impacted by autism and hates any changes to his/her usual routine, and an air raid siren goes off. You only have 15-90 seconds to get the both of you to safety. How do you keep calm enough to get your child or teen downstairs to the bomb shelter with the precious seconds ticking down?

As Hamas continues to violate international law and target civilian population centers, the Jerusalem Post reports there are some 1 million people with disabilities living outside of group facilities in Israel, of whom some 70,000 live in the south, which has been under almost constant siege.

The only way to ensure their safety is with the right preparation.

Israel Unlimited, a partnership with the Israel Joint Distribution Committee, the government and the Ruderman Family Foundation, has developed social services assisting this population in the South.The partnership launched a Security Network in cooperation with the Health Ministry and Listening Net, for people with emotional frailties. The service includes virtual social chats, social gatherings, a dedicated website and application providing information in dealing with emergency situations, and psychological first-aid support by professionals. The service is free of charge and accessible to people with disabilities through this website.

Beth Steinberg, mother to a teen with disabilities and also co-director of Shutaf in Jerusalem, which provides inclusive after school and summer day camp programs for children and teens with special needs, wrote in 2012 for the Times of Israel how her and husband, Ira, prepped their son, Akiva, then 15, for a “red alert”, the warning system’s siren:

“Akiva is strong and capable and known for stopping in his tracks if he’s moved too quickly – that is, without preparing him. We came up with two plans. Plan One? We told him that if there was a ‘big noise’ we’d run ‘chick-chock-a-roo’ into a building. Akiva who likes certain kinds of words, responded to that with a smile and seemed reassured. Plan Two? Ira would push him down to the ground with my help – as safely as we could – and one of us would lie on top of him, sheltering him as well as themselves as best as possible. “

When I co-chaired the LA Jewish Federation’s Special Needs Mission to Israel with Judy Mark almost exactly two years ago, one of the more memorable and heartbreaking discussions took place while visiting ALEH Negev, a village/campus in the south of Israel for children, teens and adults with severe multiple disabilities. Created by the charismatic Major General (Res.) Doron Almog for his own son, and others in similar situations, ALEH Negev is a residential center, staffed by compassionate professionals who provide the highest-quality level of care. They serve children with severe disabilities all over Israel, but the main residential facility is in the south, close to Gaza, and it is home to 135 residents, with 150 staff members and hundreds of volunteers.

To prepare their residents for the incoming rockets, the staff came up with a novel yet sad solution: take all the residents at ALEH Negev to the bomb shelters twice every day, all year round, for a short time, so when they hear the incoming missile warning, the residents will feel comfortable going and staying in the bomb shelters.

On Sunday, a Grad rocket landed on ALEH Negev property– luckily, no one was hurt. Ongoing Red Alerts keep sounding throughout the day and night.  As reported on their website, ALEH's children have been moved into specially reinforced sheltered rooms, along with all their accompanying medical and paramedical equipment. A childcare program for the staff has been opened on-site, so staff can take care of the residents while also being there for their own children. They have put out an urgent request for extra equipment, toys and activities to keep the children occupied and stimulated. 

Meanwhile, Beit Issie Shapiro, a major educational, advocacy and treatment center in Ra’nana for children and teens with developmental disabilities, (serving both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs), is staying open and continuing to serve their clients. They just opened up a new hotline for parents an and other family members of children with special needs, staffed by Beit Issie Shapiro’s expert psychologists and social workers at its Lubner Family Therapy Center, offering guidance on overcoming emotional stress during this difficult time.

In closing, I realize that this is the second time in two years that I’ve written a similar column ,and pray that this will be the last post I need to write on this issue.