ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran—A Vision of Hope for the Disability Community

Philharmonic drummer and resident playing drums נגן התזמורת מתופף עם ילדה

By: Toby Klein Greenwald

I am once again astonished by how some people can turn personal tragedy into a fulcrum to move and improve the world.

Our journey begins this year on June 3, by driving along Highway Six to the Negev. It flows by open fields and hills, and birds, sometimes in evocative flocks, glide above the cars. Everyone thinks of the Negev as being a hot place, but in the evening, it cools and we can feel the beginning of a breeze.

And there, among the summer dust and the cool winds, we come upon an oasis of humanity. We have arrived at the beautiful ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran therapeutic and residential village to attend a concert by the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yoel Levi, whose usual venues are elegant halls in Israel and Europe.

Tonight, however, following more than a year under pandemic protocol, and several intense days in the direct line of fire from Gazan rockets, they will be playing in the accessible amphitheater of this ground-breaking venture on the outskirts of the desert town of Ofakim.

But something is happening here that is much more important than a concert.

ADI (formerly ALEH Jerusalem and ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran) is legendary as Israel’s most comprehensive provider of residential and rehabilitative care. The village that sits on 25 acres is home to 165 individuals with severe disabilities whom it serves in that capacity. There are over 500 professional staff members, including doctors, nurses, therapists and special educators, and more than 800 annual volunteers. It has a hydrotherapy pool, special education school, integrated nursery, green care farm, and a therapeutic horse farm and petting zoo.

This concert is to celebrate the opening of ADI’s Neuro-Orthopedic Rehabilitative Hospital in the Negev, the first of its kind in Israel’s south, scheduled to be completed later this year. ADI spokesperson Elie Klein (no relation to this writer) says, “There are other rehabilitative hospitals in Israel, but we will be among the largest. It will include 108 rehabilitative hospital beds and will also create more housing and jobs in the Negev. Residences for the medical professionals who will work at the hospital are also being built adjacent to the village.”

But there’s more. The start-up nation that created the flash drive, Waze, the rooftop solar hot-water system, the flexible stent, and scores of other technological and medical inventions, will not only change the face of rehabilitative care in Israel, but also go far beyond through state-of-the-art translational research that can be used globally. Klein explains that translational research is research that can be immediately implemented effectively in the field. “Through partnerships with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Johns Hopkins University, the Sheba Medical Center, the Weizmann Institute and Irbid National University in Jordan, researchers at the hospital will study the trauma and recovery of everything from car accidents to COVID-19, which will be shared with hospitals across the country and around the world to improve global best practices.”

So the whole world will benefit from this project.

Musicians connect directly with the children.

The orchestra’s musicians had traveled to the village two weeks earlier and played music for and with the children of ADI. How could they play “with” the youngsters, most of whom could not speak and some of whom did not usually make eye contact? By putting percussion instruments into their hands and showing them what to do.

While the musicians performed their repertoire of delightful light classics at the concert, we saw, on large screen behind them, ADI children “playing” drums, triangles, wind chimes, cymbals and more. A girl puts her hand on a trombone, connecting with the music. A boy lays his hand on a violin while the musician plucks its strings. This film, which was shown on an occasional loop throughout the concert was, for me, the most moving part of the evening. At one point it was accompanied by an original composition by the Israel Philharmonic called “Every Person is a Symphony.” 

I wondered about some of the children I saw in the video, who appeared to be “typical” children. Klein explains, “We have an integrated preschool—one class of children with disabilities and a second with their non-disabled peers. The classes are mixed throughout their daily activities to teach empathy and inclusion from a very young age. The very young children seen in the video are a mixture of both classes.”

It was heart-warming to see them together in the video, and to know that the children in these mixed pre-schools will grow up with understanding for those with disabilities, and a different attitude in general toward people in our society who are different.

Who is behind this initiative?

Major General (Reserves) Doron Almog, Founder and Chairman of ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran, is the centrifugal force advancing this mammoth project. An emulated former commander of the Paratroopers Brigade who also held other prestigious army positions, he was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2016.

He petitioned for the founding of the village due to his experience with his son, Eran, named for Almog’s brother who fell in the Yom Kippur War. Eran was born with brain damage, and suffered from severe autism and cognitive disabilities. He died at age 23 in 2007. Almog also had a daughter who died when she was one month old. His remaining child, Dr. Nitzan Almog, was 10 when Eran was born. Today she is a senior clinical research associate at IQVIA (The Human Data Science Company).

Doron Almog is an IDF hero. He has participated in three of Israel’s wars and many military operations. Since the evening was also in honor of his 70th birthday, it was no wonder that among the guests were IDF Chief of Staff Major General Aviv Kochavi, former Chief of Staff and former Defense Minister Moshe “Boogie” Ayalon, Minister of Culture and Sport Hili Tropper, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and former Israel Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold.  Almog described emotionally, to the crowd, how painful it was when he used to take his son Eran with him to swim at the Nes Tziona Country Club, and some of the people there looked askance. Almog related, “A man said to me recently, ‘We remember how you used to come here with your son, and some people used to ask, ‘Why is he bringing his retarded son here?’ and you said to one of them, ‘I think you are the one who belongs in a closed institution.’” It was then that he realized that individuals with disabilities need a place that will treat them with respect, and that will give them the treatments and care that they need. He described how he and his wife Didi went from school to school, from institution to institution, and their hearts were broken when they found nothing appropriate, and many in appalling condition. “I thought, it is not right that we know how to go to Entebbe and Ethiopia and won’t have mutual societal caring and intervention here in Israel.” Almog had command of the first task force in Operation Entebbe in 1976, and he was the first paratrooper on the ground. He commanded the Shaldag Unit (similar to Navy Seals) in Operation Moses, the airlift of 7,000 Jews from Ethiopia, in 1984-5.  I wondered if there was an age limitation for the ADI residents. Klein replied, “No…It is a home and a family providing a continuum of loving care from infancy and childhood through adulthood. Some of our residents are in their 60s.”

Almog said, “The strength of the human chain is only as strong as its weakest link–our ability to become better people and an exemplary society is dependent upon our commitment and our efforts to advancing the most vulnerable among us…While it is often said that every person is a world unto himself, we believe that every person is actually a symphony–unique, complex and beautiful–and we can appreciate the wonders of each individual if only we take the time to listen to the music of their souls.”

From a caravan to a state-of-the-art hospital

It had been David Ben Gurion’s vision to develop the Negev, and in more recent decades this dream has been implemented exponentially, with the increased advancement of Ben Gurion University, the Soroka Medical Center and more. “The residents of Israel’s south deserve the same care as those in every other part of the country, and we believe that we can set the bar higher for rehabilitative care,” added Almog.

Almog called the musicians’ earlier visit to the village, “Incredibly powerful…But you couldn’t help but notice the striking contrast between the beautiful music, which no doubt reaches the heavens, and our residents who are always silent.” This concert, he said, gave the ADI residents a voice.

ADI has gathered about it a cadre of supporters who are dedicated to helping it continue to grow and succeed. The building of the hospital is being implemented, Klein says, thanks to the support of JNF-USA, multiple government ministries and international donors, with one of whom I spoke at length.

Alicia Kaylie Yacoby, of the Harvey and Gloria Kaylie foundation (created by her parents), who says she is “a born and bred New Yorker, from Brooklyn,” has lived in Israel for more than 30 years. “My favorite part of the evening was watching the children with the percussion; I was thinking about how ADI Negev was doing it right, bringing the top of the top to these residents because that’s their standard.” She said the Kaylie Foundation has an interest in ADI Negev because, “We strive for higher standards and for excellence and for innovation. ADI Negev meets all those requirements and does it all very well professionally, aside from the fact that we’re committed to the issue of supporting special needs.”

But I knew there must be more to the story, because that’s the way it is with supporters of causes—there is usually a personal reason. “Why does this speak so much to your heart?” I asked.

 “My uncle—my father’s brother—was born healthy and the medicine that they gave him saved his life but made him mentally challenged—high functioning—so we see it up close,” says Yacoby. “He’s living in a residence in Ohel with nine other men like him [in New York] …They also have very high standards. So we appreciate when people see special needs people as no different from any of us, and they just need more help.

“My father met with Doron Almog and when he first visited the place there was only a caravan and Doron’s vision. And it’s not as if it was always easy… there were many challenges and maybe one of the biggest ones was finding and maintaining staff. “[For example] when my father visited the village, he thought it could be a happier, more positive environment, and then my husband Danny suggested that National Service girls volunteer there; he was also involved in the implementation of it.

“In the beginning it was hard to get the girls to go there but now there’s a long waiting list and there are about 50 National Service; they bring such life to the village…We visited recently on chol hamoed Pesach and met some girls from previous years who came to visit because they missed the residents and the ADI Negev ‘vibe.’ “

She shares a story about one of these National Service volunteers. “Once there was a very large resident who suffered from rages of anger and, unfortunately, he broke the finger of one of the staff members, so they thought ADI wasn’t a good fit for him. Then this petite National Service girl said, ‘Give me a week,’ and he was putty in her hands, he became the most relaxed person. She was 18 years old. Maybe it’s a combination of being naïve and hopeful that conquers, and they do conquer; they are extraordinary.”

Their foundation has been on this trajectory for years. “Camp Kaylie in NY was the first completely integrated camp between special needs children and typical children and now there are others because it’s so successful. It’s run by Ohel, named after my parents. There is a long waiting list. My husband is also involved.”

 A Shoah Connection and Project

“I participated in the ADI Negev Yom Hashoah ceremony, this year,” says Yacoby, “because of the candles, our six million.” She is referring to a project she created called “A Candle for Every Name,” in which people light candles for specific individuals on Yom Hashoah, their goal being to reach 6 million lighted. So far 4,532,122 candles have been lighted. “They just blew us away, those German volunteers.”

Almog told the audience about the group to which she referred—young German volunteers who have been coming to ADI Negev since 2007, four of whom came this year for six months to volunteer with Israelis with disabilities, to atone for the sins of their Nazi grandparents. Klein elaborates, “They are members of the organization ‘March of Life,’ and they believe that every German family was complicit in the Holocaust, and are thus responsible for speaking the truth, raising their voices against antisemitism and standing in friendship with Israel. They see volunteering with ADI as the ultimate challenge of true acceptance of all individuals, and thus the ultimate redemption.”

I found this both chilling and moving since the Nazis murdered people with disabilities. One of the German volunteers, Shayna Isabell Wither, 19, recently discovered that her grandfather was the one who planned Auschwitz. “On Yom Hashoah this year, these four young people spoke with Israeli Holocaust survivors—asking for forgiveness and gaining much needed closure,” says Klein.

Almog told the audience, “About the Germans: We have one day of kapara—redeeming ourselves—Yom Kippur. But these young people see every day as a day that they must work for kapara for what their grandparents did. They are preparing a March of Nations for May 14 of next year, the day of Israel’s independence. And they want to begin the march here, in ADI Negev.” He said that they want there to be no more “race theory,” but the acceptance that we are all equal people.   “Eran is no longer with us, but he continues to kick and to build this place,” said Almog. “It is not enough to give them a place to live. We want them to be part of the State of Israel, and have the highest quality of life possible. Being a better person, creating a better society, that is what creates a better world.” Yakoby: “To sum it up, the whole atmosphere of ADI Negev is, ‘We can.’ It’s just a big hug to everyone. It’s kind of magical.” On Sunday, June 20, an enhanced program, including the full Israel Philharmonic concert and a behind-the-scenes look at ADI Negev’s new rehabilitative hospital, will be broadcast to ADI’s friends and supporters around the globe. Free tickets for the International Broadcast can be secured by registering at If you want to warm your heart, I suggest you tune in to that broadcast, to remind yourself that every person is a symphony.

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