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What did you do today, to promote peace?

The Common Denominator:
Children with Special Needs

Yair Ettinger

A woman who sits in the front row, wearing a black veil, seeks the advice of Mohammed Aliwa, the deputy qadi for the Lod area. "I have a 14-year-old son with Down syndrome," she says. "He is our first child and also the first grandchild in both families. We've done everything we can for him. The problem is that he won't leave the mosque.

All of Ramadan he wouldn't leave there and he fasted every day. When I wake him up in the morning, right away he starts to pray and won't go outside to catch his ride to school. "I'm a believing woman, but not to the point that I think he should miss school for this."

The deputy qadi agrees with her. "At seven in the morning, we have no prayer, and if you get him up in the morning so he can get to school on time and everyone agrees that this is what is best for him, then he has to go to school."

Aliwa is one of three clergymen who took part in the meeting at the Sapir community center in Lod last week. He and the Reverend Samuel Fanous of Ramle and Rabbi Amit Kula of Lod met with a group of parents from Lod and Ramle who have children with disabilities ranging from physical handicaps to mental retardation.

At first glance, this looked like an inter-religious encounter whose chief purpose was the basic fact of the encounter itself - three religious authorities from different religions, who each lives his faith and teaches about its values, coming together to discuss religious matters and answer questions. But the purpose of the meeting wasn't to strive for greater harmony between the religions, and it wasn't all about peace and reconciliation. This was a grass-roots initiative by residents from varied ethnic and religious backgrounds, whose meetings are dedicated to the needs of boys and girls with disabilities and to the challenges shared by those who care for them.

The clergymen who took part in this particular session are active in their communities in Ramle and Lod on a daily basis, and their mission here was to provide spiritual support, to advise and to help parents of special needs children find acceptance and optimism. The Lod Forum for Families with Children with Special Needs began meeting less than three months ago.
Osnat Zohar, director of the Lod Rehabilitation Center, which works with toddlers age one to three with mental retardation or cerebral palsy, started the group and leads the meetings. She says that a number of public organizations and foundations have pitched in to keep the forum running, including the Lod Municipality, the Community Center Association (hevrat hamatnasim), the Kibbutz Seminar, and organizations that deal with services to disabled children, such as Pashar (an acronym of pitu'ah sherutei revaha - welfare services development), Ilan and Akim and special education schools. Several dozen Jewish and Arab families from Ramle and Lod participate.

"In our framework in Lod there is a mixed population and it's accepted very naturally," says Zohar. "The common denominator for parents of children with special needs is very strong and it doesn't matter if you're a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim."

The discussion topics at the forum are numerous and varied, and there is no direct connection between one meeting and another, either in content or form. The meetings take place once every two weeks, in the evening. In the first weeks, the parents heard lectures in Hebrew and Arabic about the rights of disabled children and their families in Israel. Later, they talked about the impact that raising a special needs child has on the family, and heard from the mother of a severely retarded boy, who, according to that session's title, "turned pain into power."

Last week, the discussion was about how religion relates to disabilities, and at the next meeting, the parents will view a solo performance by a disabled boy and then hear a lecture about social education and sexual education for disabled teenagers.

Zohar says that the meetings in Lod, which are advertised on the Internet by the Kesher organization and through SMS messages, have also drawn families from Netanya and Nazareth, which goes to show what a need there is for such a forum.

A woman in the front row, who identified herself as Samira, said this was her first time at a meeting and that it made a very powerful impression on her. "It was very exciting," she said. "I, and I think a lot of other parents like me, have guilty feelings for having brought them into the world, for maybe not having done enough for them. The religious perspective is very important to me. I was surprised to discover that all the religions see this subject in a very similar way. After this meeting, for the first time I can say that I feel that we are not to blame."

Charged discussion

The discussion about the religious significance of giving birth to an abnormal child was quite charged. "In our religion, one has to know that everything comes from God. We have to believe that this is a `heavenly decree,'" said Aliwa, and added that the prayers of a disabled child are more easily answered because of his innocence. Father Fanous, pastor of the Anglican community in Ramle, said that there is "a divine reason" when a child is born with some type of defect, and he quoted from the New Testament where Jesus says of a man blind from birth: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." Fanous also said that there is perfection in the Creation, and explained that "faith in God cancels out all defects."

Rabbi Amit Kula, head of a Beit Midrash in Lod, said, "People frequently think that if someone has a defect, that it's somehow catching. There is a fear of the strange, of the other. The Talmud says the beautiful and the ugly are all God's creations and therefore, your duty as a human being is to accept. Our sages throughout the generations describe people with limitations who were the leaders of their time, including Moses. Jewish sources say that precisely because of their innocence children have tremendous power. There's something special about this simplicity, about this innocence. The greatest mitzvah that the Torah commands us is to follow in the ways of God, and, in relation to God, we are all limited.
This is the fundamental concept."

Source: Ha’aretz, February 3, 2004. www.haaretzdaily.com.

A Silent Majority for Peace
By discussing the result of a recent poll conducted among the American Jewish Community between January 12 - 15 2004, D. DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, challenges commonly accepted ideas about this community’s attitude regarding a more active and evenhanded engagement by the U.S. in trying to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yossi Beilin:
The Wrong Exit from Gaza
Y. Beilin, one of the architects of the Geneva Accords, critically discusses the announcement by Prime Minister A. Sharon of his intention to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and a few settlements in the West Bank. Beilin argues that: “for all the public fears over concluding a permanent status agreement […] it is hard not to see that unilateral disengagement leaves Israel at best with what a full-fledged agreement would leave Israel at worst.”

Settlers in Palestine
In this commentary on the Geneva Accords, B. Michael, columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth, discusses in depth the issue of settlements and proposes creative solutions to what he considers to be a shortcoming of the Geneva Accords: the consent to absorb settlers who are willing to reside permanently in the future Palestinian state, while granting them all of the rights associated with the status of residency.

Common Ground News Service February, 2004
CGNews promotes constructive perspectives and dialogue about current Middle East issues.

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 22-02-2004



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