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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Five Years On....

This coming week, we celebrate our 5th year in HaAretz.

Why do we leave our homes, the comfort of the familiar, the solace of whatever high-paying job we have, to settle in Israel?

Whether secular kibbutznik, chareidim, or masorti, everyone I've talked with boiled it down to one common denominator: our children.

Some are fleeing antiSemitism; some are leaving the American Dream-cum-Nightmare of assimilation; some simply believe that raising Jewish children in a free Jewish state is better than being a minority on sufferance.

Conventional wisdom isn't always right. "Don't take your cats," we were warned, with dire tales about the 50,000 cats already in Jerusalem. Apart from displaying angry indignation over being cooped up in an airplane for 20+ hours, our cats adapted just fine. Food bowl-check. Litter box-check. Water dish - check. No problem!

"Don't take teenagers," we were warned. Teens, we were told, were especially problematic, and even more so in our case since we had a boy with special needs. We had, with foresight attributable to the teen in question, made a pilot tour to find an appropriate school. Having already spent one year in a charter high school with fabulous teachers in the Bay Area, we had a sense of what challenges he had. College was not an option in California, which had just passed a bill requiring a high school exit exam, which exam did not permit accommodations to children who need them. No exam, no diploma.

Israel has the bagrut system. No bagriot, no college. On the other hand, it also has a large portion of the population which works in good jobs without needing a college education....something that California seems to be revisiting in light of high tuitions and high unemployment.

What Israel does have are special education schools. Many people dislike this, thinking children should be mainstreamed. Having come from a system where there was no option except mainstreaming, I can tell you that Israel's system is better. In California, special needs children are "mainstreamed" in that they get to go to some of the same classes with their peers -- but are socially excluded, mocked, often subjected to mean tricks, because frankly, teenagers are cruel. The Boy was good at holding his own, but struggling to keep up academically while also dealing with the sheer meanness of a minority of kids, made middle school and high school more than challenging.

I think we knew we'd made the correct decision for our son when he found, among a selection of special ed and regular schools, a school he liked. It's a special education school for kids who have normal intelligence but often severe physical handicaps.

I wondered how he would react. He had an entire year of being highly frustrated because he had trouble understanding the Hebrew. But then his best buddy, fluent in both Hebrew and English, convinced their classmates that they would all benefit from teaching our son Hebrew--and the tide then turned. Like on kibbutz, kids spent all day talking to the new oleh in Hebrew and correcting his Hebrew as well.

I knew it was all good the day he said to me, "I LIKE my school, Ima. It's nice to be someplace where everyone has problems and I'm not the only one who is "different."

Israel also has an extensive social worker system for special needs children and adults. He had a social worker and counselor at the school; he received vision therapy in addition to math and Torah and history. His confidence grew and his maturity blossomed. He's transitioning into the adult social worker system, where he won't be left alone to fall through the cracks. He will receive job placement assistance, or if he wants it, more vocational training. His social worker will be his advocate at his place of employment, and if he is mistreated, she is his back-up. The work day and tasks will be tailored to meet his medical needs.

In California, his option was that of working as a bag boy at Safeway the rest of his life.

So this week, he finishes high school and transitions into adult life. We don't know yet what that will entail. He would like to do Sherut Leumi (the army won't take a child who is low-vision and subject to seizures) but that may be foreclosed because of his shortened work day. Or he could work on kibbutz where special needs children are welcome and cherished....although given his distaste for the smell of stables, I'm not sure this is the option he would choose.

What we do know is that his options here are greater than in the Old Country. There are programs here that aren't merely "placement" but are also "social" -- groups for drama, for music, for playing pool or going bowling, for judo--all geared to creating a social life for special needs adults.

During our time in Jerusalem, two motivated moms who wanted summer camps for their own special needs children, but couldn't find any, started their own. Josh has been a junior camp counselor at Camp Shutaf for four years now, and loves it. It has taught him patience, never his strong suit; it has allowed him to show compassion and care for kids he truly identifies with, although he admits that now and then a couple of them can drive him crazy.

During our time in Jerusalem, he also received the best medical attention and we found neurologists who brought his seizures under control with new and more advanced medication.

Being a young Jewish adult in a free Jewish state where the college entrance exams aren't given on Yom Kippur, where the homecoming dance isn't held on Shabbat, where one is free to live a Jewish lifestyle without needing to compromise in order to be "accepted" on the football team or gossip girl clique would have been enough, dayenu!

But we have all that and more in the many options available to our son. We will always be the old immigrant parents--but so what? What is your life for if not for your children?

There is nothing here to be afraid of; there are nothing but opportunities for your children. And if not now, when?

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