Nearly 400 ninth-graders from the Interdisciplinary High School in Hadera accompanied students from the nearby Neve Etgar School for Children with Special Needs on a Tu B’Shvat tree-planting activity earlier this year. The Hadera students decided to organize a music and crafts activity for the special-needs kids a week later.
The two groups might never have crossed paths if not for a program called Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World), launched in September 2016 by ALEH, Israel’s care network for children with severe complex disabilities, in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Education.
Tikkun Olam exposes Israeli high school freshmen to peers with disabilities and teaches them about acceptance and inclusion through lectures, experiential workshops and volunteering opportunities.
More than 10,000 secular, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious, Arab and Druze students from 60 schools across Israel participated in the first year, leading to a noticeable spike in youth-led volunteerism and social initiatives. This year, the goal is to reach 100,000 students.
“The encouraging responses we receive, the independent initiatives led by Tikkun Olam participants — teachers, parents, school principals and students — teach us that this is the beginning of a social revolution with the youth at the forefront,” says Avi Wortzman, director-general of ALEH’s rehabilitation village in the Negev. (ALEH is an acronym for the Hebrew words “helping the special child.”)
Wortzman conceived of the unique venture in response to growing demand for tours of ALEH’s centers in the Negev, Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Gedera. Many school principals were interested in giving their pupils a firsthand look at how ALEH cares for people with complex disabilities.
Wortzman piloted Tikkun Olam with teens from Merchavim School near ALEH Negev. Based on that success, ALEH agreed to develop and expand the project, which has intrigued even foreign visitors.
Tikkun Olam is structured in 10 stages.
The first stage is a day-long training for a designated coordinator from the participating school. Then, ALEH staff visits the school to assess its physical accessibility and meet with the educational staff.
The third stage introduces teachers to the concepts of accessibility and inclusion, incorporating an experiential element such as a “sensory meal” in which the teachers cope with a different simulated disability at each course.
In the fourth stage, teachers receive preparatory materials including journals in which their students can record feelings and impressions during the Tikkun Olam program.
People with disabilities from the Makom L’Kulam (A Place for Everyone) and Negishut Yisrael (Access Israel) organizations then facilitate interactive workshops to sensitize the students to daily challenges faced by their peers with disabilities. The able-bodied students may try navigating an obstacle course in wheelchairs, walking the school grounds with blindfolds and canes, or conversing in sign language while wearing noise-cancelling headphones.
In Stage 6 of Tikkun Olam, the ninth-graders are visited by key figures in Israeli society who have disabilities or are involved with people with disabilities. Then they watch and discuss a play concerning disabilities and inclusion.
Tours of ALEH facilities begin during Stage 8. After that, each student group develops and leads a community-based social project that counts toward their matriculation requirement. Individuals also may choose to volunteer at events for people with disabilities.
Finally, Tikkun Olam participants participate in a week of marches throughout Israel, walking alongside people with disabilities from their area.
ALEH’s plans to expand Tikkun Olam will bring the annual cost of the program to $1.85 million, to which the Israeli Ministry of Education will contribute $1 million annually for three years. The remaining $850,000 per year must be fundraised.
Wortzman envisions not only reaching many additional schools but also adding a social sensitivity program in which students would competitively accrue points for online and offline initiatives involving disabled and able-bodied students and well-known personalities with disabilities.
Read more at ISRAEL21c.