To Listen With Empathy: Things I Learned From My Niece by Ayala Emmett

Shunamit on Nurses Day at Hadassah Hospital

My niece Shunamit, nicknamed Shuni, a woman with disabilities wrote what she would like people to know about her life: “I am 40 years of age. I work in Jerusalem at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus as a support person in the daycare center for chronically ill children. I am well liked at work, I learn and I improve, I am content and I do my job well.”

Her work narrative would not surprise people in the U.S., in Israel and in many countries where work is an integral part of defining adulthood. For people with disabilities like Shunamit, however, participation in the workplace is far from taken for granted and was brought about by an innovative program initiated by The Feuerstein Institute.

Shunamit’s writing about work came about when I was skyping with her and I mentioned that I wanted to write an article about people with disabilities from their own perspective, and she wanted to know what the word disabilities meant in Hebrew. Her mother responded that the Hebrew word was migbaluyot and I asked her if she would like to say a few things about her life in her own words that would speak for her and for other people living with disabilities. Shunamit agreed to do it and to share pictures that reflected her life.

Shunamit in Safed with her mother

Shunamit has known the vocabulary of disabilities in Hebrew, and as it turned out was familiar with the word migbaluyot that has been used in Israel. She could have used it to describe herself. Instead she chose to write, “ Ani hariga. I am different (anomalous, out of the norm).” She added, “I have problems,” and “sometimes strangers speak to us with contempt and scorn, as if we are stupid. I am wise and smart and I ignore people who are disrespectful.”

When Shunamit was little playing with other children in the park, some mothers, chatting nearby would suddenly notice her and rush over to pull their children away. Some people – especially mothers – would stare at her from afar with an unfriendly suspicious look that was very upsetting to Shunamit. She would look up and say out loud: “I am not a poster, don’t look at me like that.” Her mother would say, “She is not contagious.” Playgrounds are public places where parents socialize their children to engage with difference. It is in childhood public spaces that the seeds of discrimination, of fear of difference and of bullying are planted and continue to be reenacted in daily life.

Yet, Shunamit has never avoided public places. She has been going to public parks since her childhood, and in the last 22 years has been taking the bus daily to and from work and on weekends she travels by bus to go her parents’ house in another town. She does it all with resolute competency despite the fact that she has also gotten lost on occasions (she has a cellphone). While still being judged by her appearance and her physical challenges, she is resilient and always determined to do her best, “I lack good motor skills in my hands. I would like to improve it.”

In the last 22 years Shunamit found her place in a supportive community, in the form of The Feuerstein Institute. The Institute was founded by Professor Reuven Feuerstein, a developmental psychologist and a preeminent advocate in Israel and around the world for people with disabilities. One of Professor Feuerstein’s major goals was “To help children and adults overcome cognitive, emotional, psychological and social disabilities and claim their rightful place in society.”

Serving in the army was important to Shunamit. Just as work defines adulthood in Israel so does serving in military. Israel has a mandatory military service and at age 18 most Israelis serve in the army, the IDF. Shunamit, however, was officially notified that she would not be able to serve in the IDF; she was bitterly disappointed and cried her heart out. Yet, to her delight she found out that as part of The Feuerstein Institute she could serve as a soldier volunteer and she was ecstatic.

Professor Reuven Feuerstein, who constantly advocated increasing civil rights for people with disabilities, was able to convince the Israeli army to embed them in the IDF as volunteer soldiers. Shunamit was able to serve as a soldier volunteer doing kitchen duty. Every week she would bring home her dirty uniform to be washed and pressed, just as her brothers have done before and after her. Her army commander had this to say about her, “Shunamit works as support in the kitchen. She works without complaining and there is no need to repeat instructions for her. She encourages others to do well and constantly pushes other soldiers forward and does her best to bring joy. She is a personal testament to the meaning of the work-ethic and strives to share her enthusiasm with others.”

Receiving the award

Shunamit served for two years in a military camp in Anatot and was given The Distinguished Volunteer Soldier Award. On the eve of Independence Day, in a large military ceremony in the company of other soldiers and commanders, Shunamit received her award from Brigadier-General Klein and in presence of  Professor Feuerstein.

In the years since serving in the military   Shunamit found her place living in a supportive housing community. She resides in The Feuerstein Institute’s supportive housing for adult women and men with special needs in Mevaseret Tzion, a suburb of Jerusalem. The housing community includes an apartment that Shunamit shares with three other women and an adjacent living unit for two other women. The apartment is equipped with a kitchen and a dinning space.

All six women are in their 30s and 40s and stay there from Sunday to Friday. A young staff woman joins them in the afternoon and evening and sleeps over.

Celebrating her birthday with staff member Irit

In the evening and with help of the staff person, Shunamit and her housemates make dinner; in the morning they make a light breakfast and get ready to study or go to work.

Shunamit  reaches out to people as she said to me, “I love to help people,” and she brings this love to her care for the chronically ill children in the Hadassah Hospital. Parents of the children have written to her parents praising her. One father wrote, “I want you to know that your daughter Shunamit’s care and attention is outstanding. She is friendly and loves to help. We have two children with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic condition that requires much assistance. The kids enjoy Shunamit’s help, she is such good company for them.” His wife wrote, “I want to thank you and Shunamit for the way she treats us and helps us whenever we bring the children to the hospital. She cheers us up, and makes our time there so much better.”

Another father wrote, “I admire the way that she brings her joy of life to all around her, the staff and the patients.” He added, “For me personally I enjoy coming to the clinic once a month and meet Shunamit and be encouraged by her. I am particularly impressed with her sense of self-esteem and strength of character. I pray to the Creator of the Universe to keep her happy and protect you, dear parents for the joy that she brings to us all.”

Shunamit has a capacity for empathy in a direct and meaningful way and when Professor Feuerstein died she wrote in a letter to his son, “ I am so sorry for your loss and I am very sad that Reuven passed away. I got to know him in the Institute a number of years ago when I came for some tests. I was a bit nervous and he looked directly at me with a happy smile that was warm and loving. The last time I saw him he was in a wheelchair and he said, ‘Shalom Shunamit. How are you?’ And I was so happy. I am very sad that he passed away, yet I have such good memories of him and he had a long and good life.”

On stage with a singer at a Jerusalem concert

Shunamit is connected to life: “I love music and I love to sing. I also love animals, I like dogs and I like walks in nature and to go out and have a good time.”

Professor Feuerstein’s philosophy has given Shunamit opportunities and support that none of the traditional programs for people with disabilities have ever offered: its core belief in her ability to change, to learn, to be a contributing member of her society in activities that define social adulthood such as military service, work, and forging meaningful connections. Unlike traditional programs that focused on the disabilities, on what people like Shunamit could not do, the Professor Feuerstein has paid attention to the wishes, dreams and potentiality of the person.

Professor Feuerstein was a pioneer in his approach that people with disabilities like all human beings have the capacity to change and learn. While people like Shunamit have limitations, at times serious ones, they like the rest, can learn, can grow, indeed must endeavor to constantly learn. He always expected them to learn all the time, in all situations. While recognizing their difficulties he believed that they could not only try, but win as well.

Shunamit’s journey in her adult life confirms and affirms Professor Feuerstein’s faith in her, as his son, Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein wrote in response to her condolences note. “Dear Shunamit. I was so very touched to receive your condolences. You know how much my father, Reuven Z”L loved you and believed in you. He knew how much you could grow and your ability to continue to learn. Now that he is no longer here, everyone must do their best to be the best. We hope to see you on happy occasions, in good health and continued growth. Again thank you for the your very touching note.”

Professor Feuerstein would have pleased, but not at all surprised that when I asked Shunamit what was the most important thing she would like to share with us, she said without hesitation and with great conviction, “To listen with empathy.”

Many thanks to Shunamit and her parents for sharing information and pictures.

The article is published In honor of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day Tuesday, February 6 2018