The drive to Aleh Negev is only about 90 minutes from Herzliya, but being Israel, it feels as if we have driven halfway across the country. Which I guess we just about have. As we know, Israel is not a big country. About the size of New Jersey. Or El Salvador. We know.
We’re heading to the outskirts of Ofaqim, between Beer Sheva and Sderot. 16 miles from Gaza. (In the month since our visit, 2 rockets have landed on the Aleh Negev property. One of the rockets did significant damage to a building. The residents are confined to safe rooms and shelters.)
But in late June, all is quiet. I’m riding with the Gees. David is driving, and Michelle, Nathalie, and Sydney are enjoying the view as we make our way to rendezvous with the Sterns. Raymond, Apryl, Noah, Hannah, Sarah, and a couple of other family members will meet us at Aleh Negev. Hannah and Sydney are going to celebrate their B’not Mitzvah together one day hence, on the beach in Herzliya, at sunset. Back in May, when Doron Almog came to CBJ to speak about Aleh Negev, both Hannah and Sydney enthusiastically let me know that they wanted to tour the village as part of their mitzvah projects. Avnet Kleiner set up our visit, and off we went.
As we approach Ofakim, a fairly sizeable city appears. From afar, the first striking feature is the number of minarets that rise against the sky. We count at least seven. Then, Arabic writing on signs, and a couple of men wearing kaffiyehs. The town is Rahat, a place of which I have never heard. In the age of the iPhone, however, ignorance is temporary and enlightenment just a touch screen away. It turns out that Rahat is a Bedouin city, which sounds like an oxymoron. It’s the only one in Israel, and 55,000 people live there. We will later meet someone from Rahat who is being treated at Aleh Negev for a brain injury.
And this is something that strikes me as we later tour the facility. The staff and residents are Israeli and Bedouin, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. Mostly Jewish, as one might expect, but Aleh Negev is remarkable in its egalitarianism. Muslim children treated by Jewish therapists; Jewish children attended to by Muslim nurses. Because Aleh Negev is a place that accepts everyone for who they are.
It’s a philosophy that permeates the Aleh Negev. There are children with birth defects, kids who contracted illnesses that left them with special needs. One child suffered brain damage from drinking poison. Adults visit the campus for outpatient hydrotherapy, occupational, and physical therapy after suffering traumatic brain injury.
All of the staff with whom we spoke emphasized how they meet everyone where they are. Aviva, who teaches the blind and visually impaired talked to us about a blind autistic student to whom she was teaching the difference between right and left. She told us that you can’t say that someone is incapable of learning. Nobody is unteachable. You just have to figure out how.
As we sat in a classroom with a group of autistic children learning a song, Ariel (not his real name), a resident boy of about thirteen or so, came over to me and wordlessly hugged me, a sincere embrace that he held for several seconds. When he released me, he walked over to another member of our party and hugged her, then proceeded to wrap his arms around several other people. A three-year-old girl in the preschool scooted around, following a wheeled cart, moving quickly and purposefully. A year earlier, she had been unable to even walk.
There are more than one hundred and fifty residents of Aleh Negev, each with a story, each unique. It is truly a special place.
A month after my visit, the contrast of Aleh Negev, where one’s ethnic or religious background makes no difference, and the barbarism of the hatred of the other mostly perpetrated by the Hamas, but let’s not kid ourselves, lurking not far beneath the surface of Israelis as well, really points up the true tragedy of a war that should never need to be fought. Yet while I have been party to anti-Arab feelings that some of my Israeli friends and acquaintances have stated, and I know that the ecumenical nature of Aleh Negev is not the prevailing feeling in Israeli society, let’s not kid ourselves. The blame and responsibility for the conflict today falls completely on the people who want to cause death. That the Hamas could send rockets with the possibility that they could fall at Aleh Negev of all places is beyond unconscionable, and beyond criminal. It is evil.
But not to end on a bitter note. I don’t have the words to express adequately how moving and transforming a visit to Aleh Negev can be. I know that Hannah and Sydney, the Gees and the Sterns, and I were incredibly touched by the dedication and perseverance of the staff and residents of Aleh Negev.
Epilogue: I do want to add my gratitude to Alan Fisher and Barbara Sommer, who introduced us to Aleh Negev and previously to the Central Arava Medical Center. Alan and Barbara encourage us not only to donate to important JNF-sponsored projects in Israel, but also to connect with those whom these projects serve. They are true Zionists, building the land that is our homeland. More importantly, they are humble people, true tzadikim. If the world is really populated by Lamed-Vavniks (google it if you’re unfamiliar), then I would bet on Alan and Barbara being counted among their number.