Yossi’s Story and the creation of Shalva-Jerusalem

Shalva founder Kalman Samuels and his son Yossi. (Facebook photo).

By Eric Schloss

(AJNews) – The story of Yossi Samuels of Jerusalem and Shalva – the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities – has deep roots with the Alberta Jewish community.

The fascinating story was recounted by his father Rabbi Kalman Samuels in his book, Dreams Never Dreamed: A Mother’s Promise That Transformed Her Son’s Breakthrough into a Beacon of Hope, (Toby Press 2020). Kalman is the son of former Edmontonians, Norman and Frankie Samuels, and grandson of long-time Edmontonians, my aunt and uncle, Fanny and Joe Samuels. His sister Marilyn Samuels (Craimer) is a prominent member of the Calgary Jewish community. Kalman (initially Kerry) was born (1951) and grew up in Vancouver, where his main interest was sports. On graduating high school in Vancouver, he received scholarships in academics, sports, and social excellence, and started at UBC. However, before his expected second year of university, a planned summer trip to France and Israel led to lifelong changes. By chance he became immersed in an orthodox milieu in Israel and informed his parents he would stay for Jewish Studies in Israel, despite their unhappiness on his leaving UBC.

The Shalva Center provides transformative care for individuals with disabilites and their families.

A shidduch was soon arranged with 18-year-old, Malki, an ultra-orthodox girl from Jerusalem, daughter of Holocaust survivors, who had been born in eastern Europe and was schooled in New York and Jerusalem. Kalman said, “I realized that I had in fact spent just over two years preparing for this meeting, transforming myself from a secular, eighteen-year-old university student and sports jock from Vancouver, who ate cheesebugers, into a devout young man dedicated to Torah study.” They were married eight months later in March 1973, by the Grand Rabbi from Mea She`arim. Their first child, daughter Nechama Leah, was born July 14, 1975, followed by five boys in the span of six years. Their last child Sara was born in 1992.

Yossi (Shalom Joseph) was born October 30, 1976. Just two weeks short of his first birthday, following a supposedly routine DPT vaccination, Malki realized that something was terribly wrong. Many subsequent visits to doctors and consultants confirmed that Yossi was blind, deaf, and had difficulty communicating, often displaying spasmodic uncontrolled movements. The family spent several years in New York for continued assessment and schooling for Yossi and were also helped by Kalman’s sister, Marilyn (Craimer), a child developmental psychology professor at the University of Calgary and head of the Calgary Learning Centre. It was amazing to his parents that despite his disabilities, he could mimic movements and have a great curiosity to his environment. They were convinced he had a keen mind.

To cover their new expenses, Kalman, who had received rabbinical ordination in Israel in 1977, studied and became expert with computers. Malki made a solemn pact with the Almighty: that if He helped Yossi, she would dedicate herself to helping other children with disabilities and their families. This prophecy was truly carried out in overwhelming fashion.

Kalman and Malki found major falsehoods regarding the DPT vaccine reports, and discovered there had been known faulty vaccine preparations in Israel (and Canada), despite lack of admission from Israel`s Health Ministry, the vaccine suppliers, Canada`s Connaught Laboratories and Rafa Laboratories of Israel, plus other physicians, and Israeli politicians. Kalman pursued legal action in 1983, which went on for years. The initial delays prevented a first court hearing until 1987. Finally in 1990, an out of court settlement was reached which has remained confidential. The Samuels had won a moral victory and recovery of their legal expenses, but it was insufficient for Yossi’s subsequent welfare.

At Malki`s insistence, they returned to Israel and enrolled Yossi at the School for the Deaf in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem. His special education teacher, Shoshana Weinstock, taught Yossi, who was now 8, to fingerspell in Hebrew on the palm of his hand. Shoshana taught the family how to fingerspell so they could communicate with him and she also taught Yossi Braille. With a Braille siddur, he was able to follow services in syngagogue and recite prayers at his comfort level. Yossi moved to the Jerusalem School for the Blind and was later able to chant the Torah blessings at his Bar Mitzvah and even received a personal letter of congratulations from President Chaim Herzog.

Malki remembered the promise she had made to G-d and she created an afterschool program in their neighboring house in Jerusalem for children with disabilities, and as a respite for their parents.

In consultation with Marilyn in Calgary, Malki and Kalman developed their initial detailed plan for a program to assist families of children with disabilities, entitled “A Protocol for a New Outreach Program in Israel” in August 1988. The plan required extensive funding, which was helped by a generous donation from the Vancouver Diamond family. Malki then came forward with the name she wanted for the program, Shalva, meaning peace of mind in Hebrew. The four Hebrew letters that spell Shalva also stand for Shihrur Lamishpaha Velayeled Hamugbal – Freedom for the Family and the Disabled Child.

Word about Shalva soon spread, and families were pleading to have their disabled children, of all ages and backgrounds, in the program. These included children with cerebral palsy, developmental delays, Downs Syndrome, autism and many other disabilities; there were no fees or restrictions, and it was open to all ethnicities.

Kalman became successful in raising funds from many sources. On his own he even created a video, including testimonials from Shalva children, which proved very helpful in raising needed funds during meetings and events, in New York and Israel.

With increasing demand, they moved to newer, larger facilities creating needed improvements and developing a range of innovative programs, and therapies – including speech, physical, occupational, and more. Shalva was also authorized to host post-high school youth, choosing the noncombat National Service Program (similar to the Peace Corps). More academic leadership and guidance was offered including conferences and a professional relationship with Hebrew University Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem.

Now requiring an even larger facility, with help, they found a 7-acre site in Beit HaKerem in the middle of the city, with an amazing view of Jerusalem below. In 2005, Jerusalem City council unanimously voted to award Shalva with the” largest remaining land parcel in Jerusalem designated for non-profit use.” The ambitious project had to overcome many complications but in 2007, a groundbreaking ceremony was held to great fanfare, and attended by more than 1000 guests, including many prominent public figures and international donors.

Malki worked closely on the construction design with the architect and the construction team. Eventually the entrance to Shalva became the” welcoming face of Jerusalem.” Six acres of green space for parkland became the Shalva Park, accessible to the public and bringing many visitors. It took a year to redesign and include a sports centre, two levels of parking, a full gymnasium, fitness centre, two pools (one therapeutic), a synagogue, a 340-seat auditorium, and a cafe, which became very popular and employs those with disabilities. Attention to security was paramount in all the design.

Malki had Israel’s famous sculptor and artist, Menashe Kadishman, create ten high pillars at the main entrance with part of the Shalva logo on top of each one, and designed with a theme from the biblical story of creation. Kalman stated that, “Together they convey that every person is a beautiful and important part of creating a world community.” Malki also asked Israeli artist David Gerstein to design a beautiful brightly colored metal butterflies mobile, 20 foot-high, on the ceiling of the three-story atrium, and she filled Shalva with art and vibrant color. She insisted the exterior of the building be in pink-tinged Jerusalem stone – “to bring warmth and to distinguish it.”

The massive retaining wall became useful in creating a National Crisis Emergency Centre for people with disabilities. It was of great help during the 2006 Lebanon War, providing safety for children with disabilities, and families from northern Israel. In the summer of 2014, after an onslaught of missiles from Gaza, many moved in for protection. The Centre was able to admit up to 1200 youth within 24 hours. It also currently serves as a needed refuge shelter for thousands of children (both Israeli and Palestinians) who have been displaced because of the Israel Hamas War.

A grand opening of the new Shalva Centre was held April 2017, with many friends and supporters attending from great distances over the 2-day event. Kalman’s sister Marilyn came from Calgary for the celebration with cousin Judi Card (Samuels) from Edmonton, and they highly praised the occasion. One highlight was the great performance by the Shalva Band. Music therapy had always been a major component of Shalva programs, and the Shalva Band over the years developed into a professional unit touring the world and performing at concerts.

Rabbi Kalman, his sister Marilyn, his daughter Sara, and the Shalva Band, appeared at a Zoom presentation in Calgary, February 28, 2021, hosted by Karina Szulc, the inclusion coordinator for the Calgary Jewish Federation. The program was entitled “Shalva-A Butterfly Beyond” and celebrated Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JADIM). Kalman commented,” The goal of Shalva has always been to create social change with their music. They have inspired the world to take note and rethink disabilities and inclusion.”

Shalva is also very involved with sports. Team Shalva is a group of 500-600 runners who travel from all over the world to Israel to participate in the Jerusalem Marathon in support of Shalva.

The 220,000 sq. foot Shalva National Centre is now considered the largest and most prominent service facility in the world for people with disabilities. Shalva has become an international beacon, dedicated to providing transformative care, support and research for individuals with disabilities, empowering their families and communities. The Centre was designed to promote inclusivity through every facility in the building. Over 150,000 visitors a year come to Shalva to visit the facility, enjoy Cafe Shalva and the 6-acre park, plus attend conference and educational programs. With over 35,000 international supporters, Shalva has a full-time staff of 500, and hundreds of willing and enthusiastic volunteers.

Educational delegations across the world frequently visit, and Shalva collaborates with world-wide communities, governments, and institutions to pioneer innovative therapy solutions. The family focus has always been central to Shalva. Over 10,000 families receive Shalva’s support and guidance.

Both the Shalva Center and Kalman have received numerous honours, prizes and awards over the years since 1974. Although obviously deserving of major recognition and awards, Malki is too modest to accept them, but Kalman devotedly recognized her in the subtitle of his book on Shalva with “A Mother’s Promise,” and his detailed accounts of her plans and contributions to the success of Shalva.

Yossi continued his happy life and travelled frequently, meeting leaders in Israeli society, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President George W. Bush. He also fulfilled his dream of riding an elephant in Thailand. He developed a special interest for wine and trained for two years with an Israeli sommelier. He then travelled to France visiting wineries and vineyards. A 2020 article in the Jerusalem Post, entitled ” First Wine Made by a Blind and Deaf person in Israel,” relates the story of Yossi creating his own wine. It is the only wine with a Braille label and he appropriately and proudly named it Yossi Wine!

More information about Shalva can be found at Shalva.org and Kalman Samuels’ book can be purchased at your favourite bookseller (ISBN 978-1592645251).


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