I am not sure if I am awake at this moment nor if I will make any sense. I returned yesterday after spending four non-stop days accompanying a group joining Team Shalva at the Jerusalem Marathon. My group of 43 participants had three chaperones. More than 600 runners represented Team Shalva alone at this overwhelming, special event.
The participants, high school students from all over the USA, included a large group from Ma’ayanot, Frisch and SAR with representation from Bruriah, TABC and MTA. They were wired with enthusiasm from the moment they stepped onto the plane. Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday morning, the organization immediately made order from chaos, as buses were assigned to individual groups and the teens were whisked away, immediately after davening, to the Shalva Center in Jerusalem.
I, for one, was not at all prepared for what the Shalva Center actually is. A magnificent structure in Bayit Vegan, it was more impressive than I, or anyone else who had never participated in this event, could have imagined. Happiness is definitely the theme that permeates the building. Services for children, teens and young adults with special needs are offered daily. The swimming pool alone is a work of art, and I noticed a group of “special” chasidic boys entering the building to have a swim. I felt great pride as I watched “our kids” so enamored with and comfortable in this setting.
After our breakfast at the center and tour of the entire facility, the post-lunch plans included a grand carnival with music blaring, popcorn, face painting and inflatables.
The carnival took place in the promenade directly outside the main entrance, with the bright Jerusalem sun; the gleaming rays of sunlight were all the more welcome after departing from Newark at the start of a nor’easter!). I proudly watched our local teenagers interacting with adorable children with Down syndrome who attend the nursery school. The children squealed with delight at all of the extra attention they were receiving.
Following the carnival, everyone was invited to a concert performed by the amazing internationally known Shalva Band. Words cannot describe the feeling of seeing the talented band members, each with their own disability, performing with sounds that had the entire auditorium standing and swaying and clapping with the music. We were fortunate that the band members were a part of our Shabbat, and at a discussion they were introduced to the group and spoke of their involvement with the band. Next week the band will be performing at the Google Center in Manhattan. They travel and are a testament to the strength that people with special needs have if given the correct forum, and the outstanding direction they are fortunate enough to have received.
Later, the group was bused to Har Herzl where we gathered at the kever of Nachshon Wachsman, H”yd, and listened to his mother tell the heart-wrenching story of what happened to her son when he was kidnapped by Hamas and the week that followed before he was killed. Esther Wachsman is a dynamic and inspiring speaker. She also addressed the group on Shabbat.
Arriving back at Shalva, a pasta party took place, and then “finally” it was time for the group to check into their hotel, with not much time to rest and get ready to rise early in the morning to participate in what was their “raison d’etre” for coming to Jerusalem—the amazing Jerusalem Marathon. The level of enthusiasm was high, and unless the participants jumped out of bed really early in the morning they had little time to avail themselves of the delicious Israeli breakfast typical of all Israeli hotels.
Gan Sacher, the meeting place for all of the participants, was filled with a festive atmosphere. Each group participating in the marathon had their own “tents” set up for participants to meet in and to return to. Runners were hyped up; by the time they completed their walk or run they were totally elated. All wore smiles in sweat-cover faces, even those with pains from aching muscles.
Special tracks were prepared for families and those with disabilities to participate as well. They, too, experienced the exhilaration of partaking in the run. Wheelchairs were accompanied by Shalva volunteers, and people on crutches were escorted by friends. This feeling of inclusiveness permeated the entire day.
Following the euphoria of the marathon there was more to come for the Shalva participants. They were invited to City Cinema in Jerusalem where the entire lower level of the facility was open to everyone from the group, where they partied for hours. With a few free hours before Shabbat, part of my group walked to Machane Yehuda, with its usual hustle and bustle prior to Shabbat.
As we returned to our hotel, I imagined that finally Friday night after a special Shabbat tish we would have the opportunity to sleep, but not everyone under the age of 20 seemed to agree with that feeling. Shabbat was beautiful with tefillot, lunch, inspiring speeches, singing and perhaps the slightest hint of rest. After returning to City Cinema for a brief stay on Motzei Shabbat, we were all bused to the Yeshivat HaKotel where a kumzitz took place on the rooftop of the building. Then everyone proceeded to the Kotel. After spending time at the Kotel, the group formed two huge circles at the Kotel Plaza and participants sang their hearts out. It was indeed a sight to see.
Although there was a curfew, I doubt anyone actually slept that night. On Sunday morning, several groups left back to the States and others had activities planned for the day. Our plane, however, left Sunday evening/Monday morning at 1 a.m.
While I don’t regret a moment, I was able to calculate that I had 11 hours of sleep from the time that I arrived in Israel on Thursday morning until I left on Sunday evening.
The experience was indeed unforgettable. To the parents of the participants: you should feel extremely proud of your sons and daughters. I would vehemently suggest that anyone who travels to Israel in the future make it a point of visiting Shalva. They welcome visitors and have facilities to host bar and bat mitzvah celebrations in a magnificent setting.
There was more to this trip than running in a marathon. My hope is that those who participated in this will internalize what they saw and learned. When I am more awake I will definitely expound upon those thoughts. But now I need a nap.
By Nina Glick
Nina Glick lives in Bergenfield after many years of service to the Montreal Jewish community. Nina coordinated all Yachad activities in Montreal and was a co/founder of Maison Shalom, a group home for special needs young adults. She can be reached at [email protected].