Friday, December 14, 2012

Partners in Adding Light in the Winter

My flight from JFK to Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv was fascinating.  As usual, the plane was packed. Half the plane was filled with Birthright participants while the rest of the 747 was filled by a mix of secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Israelis and Americans, as well as a number of Christian pilgrims.  I settled into my seat expecting to fall asleep when the person next to me struck up a conversation.  This was her first trip to Israel and she was SO excited. She had traveled to much of the world but this was the trip she was most excited about.  A Christian pilgrim, she was traveling with a group of widows and widowers to The Holy Land to play the harp at the gates of Jerusalem and to meet their counterparts, Jewish Israeli widows and widowers.  While keeping me up with conversation during the flight would normally annoy me, the energy of this group was so delightful that I wasn't bothered.

Listening their excitement about coming to Israel for the first time, their hope to bring love and joy to Israel, without any intention of proselytizing or changing anyone, of bringing light to those who often live in darkness got me thinking about others who do the same at this season of the year.  Reviewing my e-mail, I came across a note from just such a person.  Beth Steinberg, a friend we made during our sabbatical in Israel, is one of the bright lights in the Israeli winter.  After not finding programs that met the needs of her son with special needs, Beth, together with Maya Avraham, created Shutaf, partner in Hebrew, to provide after school inclusion programs for her son and others like him.  Since starting the program in 2007, Shutaf now includes summer camps, winter camps and leadership programs, touching hundred of lives.

According to their mission statement, Shutaf

for children and teens with special needs is committed to inclusion-based programming that answers the social, educational and vocational needs of our community. We believe in quality services for all, regardless of disability, financial limitations and religious differences. Our program creates new opportunities for children and teens – with and without disabilities – to come together and learn important Jewish values of acceptance and understanding.

To that end, the Shutaf summer camp and other programs intentionally seeks a mix of participants where 75% are children with special needs and at least 25% are "typical" kids.  Both those who are "typical" and those with "special needs" learn from experience the centrality of Jewish values of acceptance, understanding and inclusion.  For families with children with special needs, for the kids themselves, for the typical kids and their families as well, Shutaf shines a light on possibilities, possibilities for a more inclusive and supportive world.

Shabbat is a few hours away.  The Jerusalem skies alternate between sunshine and overcast.  Soon, the gray will turn to darkness, deep winter darkness, illuminated only by the streetlights, Shabbat candles and Channukiot.  And the light will  grow by the energy, joy, and goodness that Beth and Maya and others like them add to the world.

And who knows, maybe I will even hear some harp music in the distance...

Shabbat Shalom, Rosh Hodesh Sameach and Happy Hannukah.

For more information about Shutaf, visit their website at:

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