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Galilee Diary #543, July 27, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
         -Leviticus 19:14

For years we had a subscription to the theater series at the Karmiel auditorium, which brought plays from the various repertory companies around the country. But we got bored with the selection a few years ago and decided to go it alone, and create an a la carte cultural schedule for ourselves. But long days and frequent evening meetings make it hard to keep up the resolve. We have been seeing more movies. And we just made our Second Annual Excursion to the Opera in Tel Aviv. The Tel Aviv Opera House is elegant and impressive.

On our way to a matinee of La Traviatta we went strolling in Jaffa port, an old area in the process of gentrification. One of the attractions there is the Na Laga'at ("please touch") Center which produces a play in which all the performers are blind and deaf, and offers a dinner served by blind waiters in complete darkness. We stopped for brunch at their Kafe Kapish, where all the waiters are hard of hearing. There's a white-board and marker on each table. It was pleasant (and delicious), and brought to mind the large number of such enterprises one encounters scattered around the country: For example, Nagish Kafe (a pun on "we will serve" and "accessible") here in the Galilee, that employs persons with mental handicaps and illnesses, and the cafeteria at HUC in Jerusalem which is run by a similar foundation. Then there is Lilith, a high-end gourmet restaurant in Tel Aviv whose kitchen staff are trainees placed by Elem, an organization working with marginal youth. Also, in addition to Na Laga'at, the Holon Children's Museum has both a "blind experience" involving a tour through a complex of different spaces, including a snack bar, in total darkness with a blind guide; and a parallel "deaf experience." The blind experience is so popular that reservations must be made months in advance. In Old Acco one can shop at "The Shop for Meaning," run by young people with physical and sensory handicaps, for craft items made by the handicapped as well as various imported fair-trade products. Kivvunim, the foundation that runs the shop, also operates a pre-army preparatory program for handicapped youth; we partnered with them last fall to operate a circus project for visually impaired Arab and Jewish teenagers. Maghar, an Arab village east of us, has a disproportionate population of deaf, due to in-clan marriages. The answer of the director of the local community center? to host an international festival of theater of the deaf.  A few miles away in Karmiel one encounters Alut-teva, a vacation village for families of autistic children, where they can relax in a setting where they are relieved of the tension and awkwardness that often beset such families on vacation in more public places. And a particularly impressive story is that of Adi Altschuler, who, eight years ago when she was 16, was moved by her relationship with a neighbor with cerebral palsy to try to organize a mixed youth group of handicapped and "normal" kids. The project succeeded beyond her wildest expectations and today "Marshmallow Wings" is a national youth movement with chapters all over the country. 

It has always been a source of some frustration that Israel, with its history of wars, and the ingathering of refugees, was not more conscious of the need for accessibility, and in general of the requirement to accept and integrate the handicapped. Perhaps our sensitivity was dulled by the strand in Israeli culture in its formative years that glorified strength and self-reliance, and was ashamed of helplessness and victimhood. We still have many challenges in this regard. On the other hand, consciousness has risen a great deal in recent decades, and the number of heroes, both volunteer and professional, out there fighting on this front is really impressive, as is the creativity of their projects.

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