March 9, 2010
Disabled Israeli Kids Get Help in Negev
Like most fathers, Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog imagined great things for his son, Eran. Named for Almog’s beloved brother who died in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Almog hoped Eran would inherit some of the humor and success that had defined his namesake. He wanted him to be brave, smart and sensitive. He wanted him to get a good education, serve his country, marry a woman he loved and, one day, have children of his own.
Those dreams were never realized. Even as an infant, it was clear that Eran was different. At first his parents thought he might be deaf, but by the age of 8 months, he was diagnosed with severe autism and mental retardation.
Rather than let shattered hopes ruin their lives, Almog and his wife, Didi, decided to alter their dreams. They vowed never to be ashamed of Eran and to do everything they could to give him a better life.
“My son never said one word to me. He never called me Abba, and he never made eye contact with me, but he was the greatest professor of my life,” Almog said with conviction. “He taught me about the value of life, about love, about ego and about commitment. We never expected to outlive him, and after he passed away in 2007 at the age of 23, we decided that we must continue our struggle to increase awareness about this deprived population.”
Paradoxically, in order to do that, Almog gave up a successful military career and the opportunity to become the IDF’s next chief of staff. Without hearing his explanation, in fact, it might be difficult to reconcile the bereaved father whose eyes well up with tears as he discusses the meaning of love with the elite commander who participated in two undercover rescue missions, fought in three wars and served as major general in the Gaza Strip.
For Almog, however, every action he has taken was informed by the guiding principle of his life: to defend others. “I made two commitments in my life,” he said solemnly.
“The first was to protect my country and the second was to protect the weakest members of our society. I think I have done my duty on both accounts.”
Indeed, although as the son of a bereaved family, he could have chosen to end his military service in 1973, he opted to remain in a combat unit. After he discovered that his brother Eran had died after being left behind to bleed to death in a tank, Almog promised himself that he would never leave a wounded soldier behind on the battlefield. It was a vow he kept.
In the famous 1976 Operation Entebbe mission, in which 105 Israeli hostages were successfully brought back from Uganda, Almog was the first soldier on the ground and the last one to leave. During Operation Moses, he helped rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews from pickup points in the Sudanese desert under cover of darkness. From 2000 to 2003, he dealt with more than 12,000 incidents of terror in the Gaza Strip, foiling constant attempts by would-be terrorists to enter Israel during one of the worst periods of terrorist attacks in the country’s history.
In 2005, Almog once again made headlines — this time for evading London police. Just after landing in the U.K., he was tipped off about an arrest warrant issued for alleged war crimes involving the destruction of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. Almog and his wife did not deplane, and a week after his return to Israel, the warrant was rescinded, along with a formal apology for the embarrassment by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. In a subsequent interview with the Guardian, Almog noted that as a soldier and a general he has never committed a crime and, in fact, has risked his own life and those of his soldiers many times in order to save Palestinians.
“I have lost a lot of friends and fought in many battles, but I have never left anyone behind,” Almog said. That same promise is one he extended to the severely physically and mentally handicapped, of which there are an estimated 8,000 in Israel today.
“I rescued hostages who were thousands of miles away, but right here in Israel there are thousands of hostages living in our society who need our help, some of them from birth and others from accidents,” he said. “Having Eran was the most difficult experience of my life and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but I am also happy I went through it because it made me a better man. Thanks to the lessons he taught me, I am committed to continuing my work as a mouthpiece for this population.”
In 2003, Almog traveled to the United States as a senior research fellow at Harvard. While there, he created a nonprofit organization and raised millions of dollars in order to establish a rehabilitative village for disabled children and a residential complex for impaired adults over the age of 21, including Jews, Bedouins and Muslims. A year later, after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon passed a resolution that the project would be 40 percent funded by the State of Israel as long as the other 60 percent came from private sources, construction began on Aleh Negev (now named Nahalat Eran in honor of Almog’s son). The cost per patient is about $4,500 a month, of which Israel covers just over $2,000. The rest comes from private donations and foundations, such as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and the Jewish National Fund.
What started as a dream to provide his son Eran with a better life is now a flourishing reality. From a distance, the small 25-acre village looks like any other cluster of light-colored, one-story residences in the vast stretch of arid, stony land that makes up Israel’s Negev desert. Once inside, it quickly becomes clear that this place is different. Its 108 inhabitants require constant supervision, therapy and care just to survive, but here they are given far more, including state-of-the-art facilities, medical and dental care, a music garden, a safari center, agricultural grounds, a fully staffed hospital and therapies of all kinds — hydro, animal, art, speech, vocational and music, to name only a few.
Through his son, who spent the last year of his life in the village and loved it so much he eventually refused to come home at all, Almog learned that love is not about desire. It’s a commitment, in this case the commitment to take care of someone who can give nothing back and who needs you every single second. It is a huge weight to bear, and many parents fluctuate between deep shame and painful guilt. As a counselor to others, Almog’s advice is simple: Put your ego aside, and ask yourself what you are prepared to do for someone who needs you despite your own grief and agony.
On March 18, Almog will be a guest speaker at The Beverly Hills Hotel at a fundraiser event for Nahalat Eran organized by the Jewish National Fund. American stars Larry Miller, Larry King, Sarah Silverman and Kenny G will also participate in the event, where Almog plans to share another message with Jews in the Diaspora.
“I use Operation Entebbe as an analogy. At that time, the Israeli government was committed to saving Jews overseas, and we had the best and the bravest to fight that battle. Today, Jews abroad must show their commitment to the State of Israel and to those who are too weak to fight their own battle,” he explained. “This is an opportunity for the Jewish community to show their support and their humanity.”