THE HUMAN SPIRIT: Swimming for inclusiveness

No matter how you slice it, a carrot is a carrot. That’s what you’d think if you weren’t training special-needs adults as sous chefs.

In the kitchen, petite, ginger-haired Shoham Alexandre is waiting for her six apprentices. She’s taught them five distinct carrot styles: julienne, plain sticks, diced, rounds and grated. Which goes into the soup? Which will be right for toddlers in the daycare center? Crudités are for the staff salad bar on Tuesday. All the sous chefs are cognitively and/ or emotionally challenged young adults. One is also blind. “On one hand, we work on fixed procedures and daily routines. If I change the way the carrots are prepared it’s not trivial,” says Alexandre, who is both a chef and social worker. “On the other hand, flexibility is one of the important traits we are trying to inculcate, along with competence and reliability.”

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This isn’t make-work. The cook staff is entrusted with preparing the meals for the students, staff and volunteers of the Gevaot educational institutions.

Gevaot (“heights” in Hebrew) is a suburb of Gush Etzion, four kilometers west of Alon Shvut. It was established in 1982 as an outpost for soldiers to be passed on to civilians. The initial residents were married yeshiva students, who outgrew the prefabs. Today, 45 families live here, along with the 25 special-needs young adults under the umbrella organization Sadnat Shiluv, (literally “Integrative Workshop”). In a model that draws admiring educators from afar, the special-needs adults are members of the community. The Gevaot synagogue gabbai (sexton), for example, has Down syndrome.

Alexandre, who lives in a nearby kibbutz, also prepares the day’s pencil and paper study assignment for her crew. Today’s lesson includes worksheets on Bible passages relating to dietary laws. Each of the sous chefs must undergo a training program in cooking skills and safety measures before taking on daily kitchen work, which includes organizing supplies and clean-up.

I’m visiting Gevaot because I’m taking part in this month’s all-women swim across Lake Kinneret. This sporting event, called Swim4Sadna, raises money for this special-needs community. The kitchen, basketball court and wooden yurt auditorium have been purchased with funds raised by the swimmers.

My host is Vivienne Glaser, founder of the swimathon. The persuasive London-born business consultant who shepherds Israeli start-ups marketing abroad has insisted that I see what the swim supports.

Glaser is the nexus between the swim and Sadna. An observant Jew, she was a champion swimmer in London, competing on the national team at the Maccabiah Games. In Israel, she was frustrated that the annual Israeli Cross-Kinneret Swim is always scheduled on Shabbat. Undaunted by the formidable bureaucracy in starting a major sporting event, nine years ago she launched the Friday swimathon.

Just swimming wasn’t enough. Here was a chance to do something for a good cause, one close to her heart. Swim4Sadna was born.

The 1991 Gulf War found Glaser, her husband and five children living in the northern development town of Ma’alot. Her husband was mobilized. The pregnancy was difficult. Their son Elhanan (Elhi) was born early and small. “The nurses and doctors were all wearing gas masks at the delivery, like a science-fiction movie,” said Glaser. “Scud 27 fell, and I was wheeled into a sealed storage room.” Elhi was whisked away to intensive care. At age three he still couldn’t walk or talk. “You begin a desperate journey of hope for a special-needs child,” Glaser said. In addition to medical experts, they consulted alternative and spiritual healers. “You would run into the same expectant parents in the same waiting rooms, all looking for answers to help their children.”

A countrywide search led her to Gush Etzion, a community with a reputation for creative educational initiatives. A new, religious-stream school where special-needs kids were integrated might be just what Elhi could benefit from. “We had a family meeting and, after 17 years in the north, decided to move from Ma’alot to Gush Etzion so that Elhi could attend that school.” It was the seed of what would become Sadnat Shiluv.

On our tour, we meet the synagogue gabbai working in the petting zoo, a teen putting a horse through its paces for the therapeutic horseback riding program and young women making magnetic Hebrew letters in the ceramics workshop.

Next door to the sous chefs making salads are bakers kneading sour bread, cheesemakers straining goat cheese. Goatherds are milking two dozen goats. The home-made goodies are featured in the Gevaot café with its spectacular view of terraced hillsides. Gevaot is reputedly the site from which the biblical prophet-for-hire, Balaam, looked down at the encamped Israelites, and whose curses turned to blessings.

All parents are concerned for their children’s future, but for parents of special-needs children, uncertainty looms larger. Here is a residential community where special-needs adults can have as much autonomy as possible given their disabilities, be productive and have friends, says Glaser. “Special-needs children often suffer from loneliness and isolation.”

In sync with the Sadna’s inclusive spirit, the swimathon isn’t a race. There are rafts along the way where the faster swimmers have to wait for slower swimmers to catch up. There’s a 1.5 kilometer option and a 3.5.

Some 400 women and girls, from teens to seniors, mainstream and special needs, will be crossing the Kinneret.

And Elhi Glaser, the boy who couldn’t walk or talk at three? He’s 27 and lives in an apartment with five other young men in Gevaot. A member of Alexandre’s cooking crew, he’s developed his own recipe for pickled garlic cloves, served in the Tuesday salad bar and in the café. He speaks Hebrew and English.

He can’t take part in the swim because it’s for women, but he does run the Jerusalem marathon.

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.

This year’s Swimathon will take place on Thursday, May 24. Registration is open until May 15. swim4sadna.org