Mushki, a happy and loving young girl with Down syndrome, as well as many other health issues, was adopted by an American family living in a community in the heart of Israel. After many years being involved in the Lev Binyamin Center for Special Needs, she grew into an adult without any structured program to attend, in her area.
She tried working in Jerusalem but the commute was too difficult and it was having a detrimental affect on her functioning. Mushki and her parents were desperate for a program to open up closer to their home, that would meet her needs.
Finally in September 2018, their prayers were answered as Lev Binyamin opened their new Cafeteria in the community of Ofra, creating a program which would now supply job opportunities for the many adults with special needs in the Binyamin Region. They also monitor the medical needs of the adults in the program, which promotes their development and success.
Today, Mushki is as happy as can be, holding down a steady job at the Cafeteria. She helps with packaging for a local nut store and loves coming to work everyday. Her life completely changed and she now lives in the new Lev Binyamin apartments opened for those with special needs, in that same community of Ofra.
Even the first leader of the Jewish people had a speech impediment. When G-d first commanded Moses at the burning bush to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, he demurred:
“For I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
Moses thought he was the wrong person for the job, but G-d knew otherwise. His impediment was actually an asset. His ability to lead the people was not born of a charismatic personality, nor of a silver tongue, but of his total willingness to serve G-d, as a shepherd safeguarding His flock.
Moses’ example still leads in the mountains of Binyamin, in this organization called Lev Binyamin – “The Heart of Binyamin.” Centered in the flagship town of Ofra, Lev Binyamin serves to integrate the special needs population in the broader society, and helps each person find their individual ability to lead and to give.
Shlomit Kahan, CEO of Lev Binyamin, envisions a world where community members with special needs are given the opportunity to give to and benefit from the community at large.
“Living in communities is so much better than living alone in a city. Anyone who lives as part of a community wants to feel relevant within that community and productive in their daily life. It is a very natural way of living – to feel that you are important to the community and that the community is important to you.”
Shlomit is leading a region-wide revolution which she hopes will spread across the world. In each community within the Binyamin region, she is working to build appropriate apartments for adults with special needs, and help them find their niche in society for a productive and fulfilled life.
“Sometimes, this apartment will be the life-long residence of this person, and so we always need to think about the best way to set it up. We need to create a good mutual relationship, where we don’t lean too much on the community. It needs to be a situation where they are both giving and receiving.”
Shlomit helps them develop a healthy daily schedule and must decide how much independence they can be given, while still being monitored. It’s a very fine line between giving them an independent life, helping them with their needs and keeping them safe.
“Challenges?” she laughs when I ask her if there is anything standing in their way. Finances, community scouting, safety…there are many moving parts to her calliope dream. Yet in a very real way, it’s finally becoming a reality.
In the Binyamin valley town of Kochav Hashachar, one man has joined forces with Lev Binyamin to bring life and light to what was previously a population with no road to walk: Shlomo Keshet, founder of Saboneto. Shlomo’s fourth child, El-Natan (a hebrew name, meaning “G-d Gave”), was born with Down syndrome. As El-Natan approached adulthood, the Keshets were faced with a difficult choice: there were limited opportunities available for people with special needs, post-high school, but it would mean that El-Natan would have to move to a supervised apartment in the city, far from his family.
“El-Natan is a special boy,” Shlomo says softly. “He’s not verbal, but he’s a very happy lad, with a great sense of humor.”
The Keshets decided that they wouldn’t send their starry-eyed child away from everything he knew and loved. On the other hand, without peers and activities, he would be terribly lonely and bored at home. Their solution: they opened up a cold-process soap factory near their home, called Saboneto, and produce organic soaps as an activity for El-Natan and his four friends whom, with Lev Binyamin’s help, will soon be able to join him in Kochav Hashachar in their brand-new apartments.
“We are leading a revolution, one which will grant light and life to people with special needs,” explains Shlomo. “Lev Binyamin is handling the residential part, and I’m handling the occupational part. My vision is for every adult with special needs to be able to do the work that he loves, to earn a good wage (unlike the current situation in most places), and to live a normal life in a community.”
In the Saboneto factory, people with special needs produce and package these all-natural beautique soaps. The Heart of Israel has joined Saboneto in supplying them with more work.
Most of the products sold on our online store are packaged and shipped with love, by the workers of the Saboneto factory. The Heart of Israel is now opening its new Visiting Center at the Saboneto factory which will sell our products as well.
Is it even possible? If people with special needs have been shunned by society until now, how can a few people bring forth such a difference?
“We believe that in this unique and special region, where our Patriarch Abraham once walked, lives a community of people with righteous values,” explains Shlomit.
The people here believe in doing as G-d commanded: “A world of kindness will be built.” (Psalms 89:3)
They believe in the responsibility of helping others in society and understand that we all need each other. Shlomit and Shlomo show us that innate desire of the people in this region who are always looking at how they can do more and help improve the lives of the people around them. In Lev Binyamin specifically, they rely heavily on volunteers.
“Each year I have at least 90 educators, and those are all teenagers! It’s something very special, that people keep on volunteering, year after year, and that families are raising their children with such important values.”
For fifteen years, the Lev Binyamin offices and classrooms were located in the middle of the campus of the Girls High School in Ofra. The principal believed that the best way to educate the girls was to expose them to the world of special needs. The school includes a class for special needs students. All the activities and trips are done all together. The recently built cafeteria located inside the school campus, gives adults with special needs a wonderful job opportunity, and the high school girls love eating there. This inviting cafeteria, called Matok BaLev (meaning, “Sweet to the Heart”) is open to the public, as well, offering an unfiltered interaction between both worlds. This beautiful ongoing relationship is having a huge impact on the lives of everyone involved.
Shlomit went on to tell us another one of the many success stories from Lev Binyamin.
One man, 57 years old, who’s parents passed away and was living with his sister, came to work in the kitchen of the Lev Binyamin Cafeteria and he really loves the work.
“This is a man who doesn’t have a high level of mental functioning, but he has a very strong ability to do things, and it’s wonderful to see how someone like him, at his age, can make this transition.”
Now, he sleeps in Lev Binyamin several nights out of the week, which gives his sister, who is also aging, a bit of a break. In the morning, he takes the children to and from the therapeutic playgroups, giving them a hand, before he starts his work in the kitchen. He is very happy, and they are very happy.
“We are so honored and thankful that many people with different abilities are able to find their address by us! There are special needs families and volunteers that have worked with us for many years and we have become like one big family.”
Lev Binyamin aims to offer services for all those with special needs in the entire region of Binyamin, which is the largest region in Israel.
“It’s hard but we are finding a way to make it happen,” Shlomit explains.
She understands that it can indeed happen only because the people in this area feel that this mission is a part of them. People here go above and beyond and deeply care for all those around them, focusing on the capabilities that each and every person has to offer.
Watch the revolution unfold before your eyes as Lev Binyamin assists families during challenging times and changes lives throughout the entire Binyamin region.
(Rachel Ben Shetach participated in writing this article.)