September 23, 2019

Yossi and Dror

It took me a while to see the connection between Yossi Samuels and Dror Dagan. I met them a few days apart on my recent trip to Israel — Yossi in a poor, ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, Dror in a wealthy suburb of Tel Aviv.

I met Yossi first. Immediately, he wanted to know what kind of car I drive. He knew all about Volvos, but I stumped him with the Acura NSX. Then he wanted to know who I was going to vote for. He likes McCain, and he warned me about Obama. He also loved talking about wines — he’s a big Merlot fan.

We were sitting and schmoozing on a sunny patio deck in a residential center for kids with Down syndrome, a place I wrote about last week (Shalva). It turns out, though, that Yossi doesn’t have Down syndrome.

He’s deaf and blind.

It was one of those horrible accidents: At 11 months, a routine DPT vaccination from a “bad batch” rendered him blind, deaf and acutely hyperactive.

His parents, American ba’ali teshuvah who had made aliyah, decided to return to New York because the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel had no specialized care for kids like Yossi, and it was against their tradition to hand him over to the state.

In New York, he attended a special school during the day, but nothing helped. For years, while his mother had one baby after another, Yossi was the “wild animal” in the bunch. Nobody could figure out what to do with him. So his parents returned to Jerusalem. His mother made a plea to God: “If I see any sign of hope for Yossi,” she said to the Almighty, “my husband and I will stay in Jerusalem the rest of our lives to help disadvantaged kids.”

One day, Yossi met an expert who specializes in working with the deaf. After a few days of working with him, the expert told Yossi’s parents that he had the ability to learn Hebrew words and letters through the feel of his hands and fingers. Within a few weeks, Yossi’s five fingers were joyfully pressing against the hand of his teacher to spell words like “water,” “glass,” “bread” and even “wine.”

Slowly, Yossi went from being a wild animal to a wild lover of life. He wanted to know everything. People who knew “finger Hebrew” took turns volunteering to read him the news, to teach him how to pray and put on tefillin, to tell him about the latest Corvette in a car magazine, and, more than occasionally, news of the latest vintage of Merlot.

That was 24 years ago, when Yossi was 8. A few years later, his parents opened the Shalva center.

When I met him, his left hand was virtually glued to the hand of a translator. Apparently, Yossi is so bright that over the years, by feeling the vibrations around people’s mouths and throats (à la Helen Keller), he has figured out how to make certain sounds. One of those sounds is a loud, primitive grunt that lets you know he’s happy. He was happy when he told me that he’d love one day to meet a pretty blonde — and, also, when he showed me how to finger-spell “I love you” (index and pinkie sticking out), which I did several times.

A few days later, I was standing in front of a mansion in a wealthy suburb of Tel Aviv, when a blue sedan pulled up. As the trunk opened automatically, an unmanned folded wheelchair, secured by a mechanical contraption, slowly came out and snaked its way to the driver’s door, which was already open. The driver, Dror Dagan, opened the wheelchair with his left hand and, with a quick motion of his powerful arms and torso, pushed himself into the chair.

For the next few hours, at an afternoon party, I nudged him into telling me his story. He had been in an elite commando unit during the Second Intifada. On his last mission, he tried to help a terrorist’s wife who was pregnant and had fainted, and got a bullet in his left eye and one in his chest. Bleeding profusely and semi-unconscious, he remembers hearing “Dror is dead.” After several weeks in intensive care, he survived, but the doctors told him he would probably be paralyzed for life. He fought the prognosis and recovered some motion in his hands and upper body, but a year later his condition remained precarious.

He did tons of research and found the top surgery center in the world for his condition (in Denver), but he needed $300,000 for the operation. Because the operation was so rare, the army bureaucracy balked at paying for it, so Dror raised the money himself by going door to door in a wealthy neighborhood.

Eventually, with the help of a phone call to the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, he got the army to pick up the tab. He tried returning the money he’d raised to the donors, but they wouldn’t take it. He flew to Denver for the operation, which removed traces of the bullet from his spinal chord. The operation was successful, and he spent many months in rehabilitation.

Today, still in a wheelchair but vigorous and healthy, Dror has used the money that the donors refused to take back to launch the Dror Foundation, which helps injured war victims navigate through the complex bureaucracy to get the best possible care.

Dror Dagan’s dream is to walk one day. When he’s not working with the foundation, he spends hundreds of hours exercising his paralyzed legs in a pool.

Yossi Samuels’ dream is to keep meeting people and talking about cars, wine, Israel and the American elections — and, maybe one day, to meet a pretty blonde.

Yossi and Dror may not know each other, and they might live in two different worlds, but they share something in common — a character trait Jews of all stripes seem to have picked up from centuries of simply being Jewish.

We never give up.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at