For Yossi Kahana, the Aleh Negev rehabilitative village all started with a dream — one big dream that is changing the lives of hundreds of disabled people and their families in Israel.
“Our goal in Aleh Negev is to give [disabled people] a good life, because most of these people will not or cannot be in the mainstream population,” said Kahana, director of development for Aleh Negev. “We feel that if there is a chain in our society, these people are the weakest members in the chain and our job is to strengthen the weakest members.”
Kahana was the featured speaker at last week’s Jewish National Fund Guardian of Israel Awards Dinner in Pittsburgh. JNF is a supporter of the Aleh Negev — a rehabilitative village in southern Israel that provides severely disabled young adults the opportunity to live a rich and productive life within a safe environment.
While most rehabilitative centers only serve their patients until the age of 21, Aleh Negev takes in people who are 21 and older. There is no other place in the world that gives disabled people in that age group a place to live.
The 25-acre village is home to 133 disabled people. It is a branch of Aleh, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.
But 15 years ago, when Kahana began working for Aleh, it was just a small facility, and there was no village.
Kahana worked for Magen David Adom, Israel’s official emergency service, where he worked as a paramedic and created a volunteer arm available 24 hours a day.
Kahana met Doron Almog, an Israeli general, who had a son born with severe autism. It was Almog who told Kahana about Aleh.
“[Almog] liked the idea when you go inside, you can see the love, you can feel it,” Kahana said. “He says ‘I wish I can have my child in a place like this.’ And I went to see this place, and I also fell in love with this place.”
Right away Kahana signed up to work for Aleh where he became the assistant to the CEO in charge of government relations, advocating for change in laws to benefit people with disabilities.
When Kahana began working for Aleh, it served people from birth to age 21. But many parents had concerns about what would happen to their children after the age of 21 — there was no place for them to go in Israel.
That’s when Aleh had the dream to open a village where disabled people could live after they turned 21.
“I called this general and I told him, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s join forces together with your connections and your ambitions as a father. Let’s build this wonderful dream,’ ” Kahana said. “So we started with a blueprint, we had a dream, we didn’t know how to build it, but when you have a dream then you start to see.”
Kahana and other professionals traveled around the world collecting ideas. But none found a model center they cared to replicate in Israel.
They took their ideas to the Israeli government and found support from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon under one condition — they had to build the village in the Negev.
“The priority of Israel right now is to build this part of the land, which is 60 percent of our country, but only 8 percent of the people live there,” Kahana said.
By agreeing to those terms, the government gave Aleh the property in Negev for free, and gave them 40 percent of their budget. The other 60 percent of the budget Aleh would have to get on its own. So they began fundraising.
“The first organization to raise the call and adopt us and came to us with a partnership was Jewish National Fund,” Kahana said. “They see the big picture. They said we [have] a blueprint to build the Negev, and by building this wonderful village you’re giving job opportunities to the people in the Negev.”
There are hopes that Aleh Negev will do more than just give jobs to the people of Negev, but eventually build the area as a whole.
“When you build a facility you have doctors, you have secretaries, you have therapists and social workers — everybody is now going to work down there,” said Amy Jonas, senior campaign executive for JNF Pittsburgh. “So what do they need? They need housing, so we start to build housing. They need coffee shops and stores, and so it begins to truly build a community.”
Construction of the village began in 2002 and enough was completed by 2005 for the first resident to move in.
That resident just happened to be Eran Almog, the son of Doron Almog. Eran only lived in the village for one year before he died, but the village at Aleh Negev is named Nahalat Eran in his memory.
“We named the village after [Eran] because he was the one that drove all of us to build this for him and people like him,” Kahana said.
Kahana, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., had a another reason to speak at the Guardian of Israel Dinner besides the JNF connection: Friendship Circle.
Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, executive director of the Friendship Circle, was this year’s honoree. Kahana has a 7-year-old son who was born with autism and is getting services from Friendship Circle in Brooklyn. He also sits on the international advisory board for Friendship Circle.
Funds raised at the dinner go to a project of the award winner’s choice, and Rudolph chose Aleh Negev.
“I’m really proud to salute Friendship Circle in Pittsburgh,” Kahana said.
In addition to Aleh Negev, Aleh has three other locations: Bnei Brak, Gedera and Jerusalem. The three other locations are for people younger than 21 and they do not offer housing.
Groups of doctors and parents have come from several cities in the United States to see the village at Aleh Negev.
But they all say the same thing.
“They came to Aleh Negev,” Kahana said, “and they said, ‘We didn’t see such a project in the United States, and we would love to forward this message to our colleagues when they are looking for a project.’ ”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)