By: David Green
“For many great deeds are performed in petty combats. There are instances of bravery ignored and obstinate, which defend themselves step by step in that fatal onslaught of necessities and turpitudes. Noble and mysterious triumphs which no eye beholds, which are requited with no renown, which are saluted with no trumpet blast. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment, poverty are the fields of battle which have their heroes; obscure heroes, who are, sometimes, grander than the heroes who win renown.”
These words, written by Victor Hugo in his book, Les Miserables, could eloquently express the stormy life, rich in achievements, of Doron Almog. Though he was not absolutely “obscure” and anonymous, no small measure of heroism was required of Doron Almog the man in his stubborn battle, day after day, on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable segment of society. This courage exceeds even that displayed by Doron Almog the General – the commander, the bold fighter, a paragon and personal model to the soldiers he led through battles, wars, and daring operations.
Moreover, even after he theoretically could have put his moral, ethical, social, and very practical battle on behalf of the cognitively disabled population aside, even when he could have let the fiery fervency cool off a bit, seclude himself within the walls of his home and languish in his grief over the death of his disabled, autistic son Eran from a rare malignant disease, even after he was given an “honorable discharge” from the battlefield, he continues to forge ahead. He heads Aleh Negev, the inspiring rehabilitative village that he worked for years to establish, in the hope that it would provide a warm, embracing home for Eran and others like him – a home for life. For a few, brief months, Eran indeed enjoyed the heartwarming lodgings, occupying the room that was meticulously adapted to his needs with endless love, until he passed away seven years ago at the tender age of 23.
Doron himself has a different, more accessible definition for heroism, one that can make it almost universally attainable. “Bob Dylan wrote: ‘To me, a hero is someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes along with his freedom.’
The Responsibility That Accompanies Freedom
The responsibility that comes along with freedom is woven throughout the life course of Didi and Doron Almog, parents of Nitzan and of Eran, who was born with profound mental retardation and autism. The two led a heroic battle aimed at providing him and those like him with a dignified existence. In the course of time, they focused their efforts on finding a long-term solution that would ensure proper care and a loving, supportive approach for Eran in his adult years as well – an effort that ripened into the establishment of a village for cognitively disabled young adults called Aleh Negev, near Ofakim. After Eran’s passing, the village was renamed for him: “Nahalat Eran.” To Doron, it was clear from the beginning of the rest of his life without Eran that he would maintain and even redouble his efforts to ensure the village’s continued development and expansion, as well as its acceptance of external patients and extension of its services to include minority populations (Bedouins), creating a unique human tapestry of assistance, support, giving, and compassion.
The approach guiding the village’s activity inspires people involved in rehabilitation and care for special populations around the world. It is suffused with respect, belief in developing capabilities at any price and in every direction, and determinedly giving value to life – even in the blackness of profound disability, absence of capability, and lack of hope for change.
From many aspects, this approach is a precise reflection of the “lesson” Eran delivered to his father, when he “taught” him to find – even in the depths of distress, in the silence of inability to express yourself, in the certainty that nothing will improve – warmth, a loving hug, gleaming eyes, pleasure from small things, and unspoken appreciation. “My freedom, the freedom of most of us, lies in our responsibility,” Doron says time and again. “Responsibility for people who have no freedom is an ongoing responsibility, responsibility as a way of life. These people have no freedom, not even to a tiny degree. Some cannot see, cannot hear, cannot talk. They are unable to eat independently, do not sense the taste of their food, cannot take care of their physical needs alone. Sometimes it seems to me that there is not a single thing they can really enjoy.
“Somebody once asked me: Why do you refuse to accept contributions of used clothing for the village, when it can save you expenses? The residents of your organization are anyway totally unaware of what’s going on….
“I told them that those who were given their freedom were also given the responsibility to be a mouth, eyes, legs, brain, and heart for these people, as well as a defender of their dignity. Yes, dignity. We are first and foremost responsible for their dignity. After all, they cannot make their own decisions, they cannot stand up for their rights. They cannot say what they like and do not like, why they agree and why they do not. So we have to act as their defender, without cutting corners or giving in. Fates are sealed due to their inabilities. And so, paradoxically, they hold tremendous power. They wield influence that can transform lives. Because they determine what kind of people we want to be.”
You can learn about the concept of freedom and responsibility from another angle, too, from the somewhat surrealistic scene you see through the window of Doron Almog’s room on the second floor of the village’s administrative building: A tall, muscular adult male, about 30 years old, is semi-supporting, semi-holding up a young man who has trouble walking, almost carrying him, while behind them walks a young woman in uniform with a pistol on her belt. Doron hurries to give an explanation: “The brawny fellow is a prisoner from the Beersheva Prison who was sentenced to several years in jail for serious crimes. The one he is supporting is a profoundly disabled resident of the village. The armed woman is a Prison service jailer who is on duty to make sure the prisoner won’t escape.
“What is the prisoner doing here? He is here as a volunteer, with several more of his friends, to help out, to give of himself to others. I suppose you could say it’s a kind of self-correction. The jailer strolls behind them, as she was ordered to do, but she is sure the prisoner won’t escape, because his personal honor would never allow him to do it. Nobody obligated him to volunteer, and certainly not in such a difficult place as Nahalat Eran.
“Our young man, the one that can hardly walk, is the prisoner’s ticket to life. I’ve spoken with him and other prisoner volunteers on occasion, and they tell me: ‘I violated the law and was sentenced to imprisonment in a closed penitentiary. I made a mistake – but I can correct it. I’ll get out in a few years and I’ll be a free man. But these people – their soul, their spirit, is imprisoned for life. They didn’t do anything wrong – but they got a life sentence.’
We Pay Taxes and the State Looks After the Weak
Doesn’t volunteer work actually remove the State’s responsibility for its weakest members? In this case, shouldn’t the State be obligated to establish such a village, since they are the ones responsible for their weakest citizens?
“And if so, then what? Then we will wash our hands of all responsibility if we see someone lying in the street, weak, hungry, hurt – because the State didn’t do enough for him? I am very familiar with the attitude of: ‘My job is to pay taxes and the government’s job is to make the best possible use of the money – including taking care of the weak.’ Don’t people who say this realize the reality? I am not, by any means, excusing the State from its responsibility; the government really is responsible. But what can you do if the needs are great and the resources scarce? We have to make difficult moral decisions – Whom to give to? What to invest in? How to divide up our resources better? What takes precedence over what? Defense? Education? Health? You can go on and one with the list, no end…
“The answer lies in the famous quote from President Kennedy, which I paraphrase: ‘Ask not what your country has done for you; ask if you have done enough for your country.’ I would also like to see these things from a different, more tangible aspect: Let everyone ask himself if he got wherever he got to, if he achieved what he achieved, if he amassed his fortune, built his career – without the State’s support. From the moment an Israeli citizen is born, he goes through the stations: hospital, Tipat Chalav Child Health Center, school, army (which I see as a place where we receive no less than we give), university, and more.
“Now, I am not overly naïve, nor am I excessively forgiving about the massive public funds channeled to bureaucratic purposes, for funding ruling systems, attaining coalition stability, greasing the wheels, and so on. That’s the reality, and within that system, I choose to exercise my personal responsibility and actualize my own capabilities – to generate change. And all along the way, I keep in mind that I too, like many others, would not have grown and flourished as I did without the State. That being the case, John Kennedy’s statement is many times more powerful. To volunteer is our obligation, our privilege, our freedom – to see every act we do on behalf of others as a form of ‘He who saves one life, saves an entire world.’
And yet, there will be those who say, even from the volunteering standpoint, why invest in those who will never understand or feel all the work being done for them? Nothing will come out of it…
“I already answered you earlier from the angle of responsibility and freedom. Now, I will answer you from the intellectual standpoint that any of your readers can understand: “You don’t leave wounded abandoned on the field.” What does that mean? Why is this such a sacrosanct value in Israel and the army? Let’s be cynical for the moment: Saving a lightly wounded soldier is understandable. He’ll probably rehabilitate and become a citizen who contributes to society. But someone who is seriously wounded? All his life, the State will have to carry him on their back and with their pocket. Let’s go even further – how about a casualty, a dead body – what don’t we do? How much effort do we invest? At what personal risk will a soldier put himself to retrieve the body of his fallen friend under fire? Our military history is replete with stories like these and nobody has the slightest question about them. Need I remind you what we have done to bring the bodies of our fallen soldiers held by the enemy to Jewish burial?”
There are those who will say that if it were not for your personal story as father of a cognitively disabled son, perhaps you, too, would not have been among those leading the battle…
“And if it is true, what can be learned from this? In my opinion – nothing. There is no lack of cases in which people experienced terrible things that had precisely the opposite effect – it made them withdrawn, depressed, powerless, with neither the ability nor the will to help others, and at times, not even themselves… So does it take a personal tragedy to get a person to act? To give? To volunteer? And how about all those wonderful volunteers – here in the village and in other places – who come out of a feeling of deep appreciation for their good fortune and are capable of giving the world to others? Perhaps it is specifically a good life, flowing with gifts, that is prime soil to nurture giving?
“One thing is for sure, in the case of volunteer work, everyone, unrelated to his personal situation, can find countless reasons why not to do it – and one big reason why he should. For me, it was the ‘mirror’ that Eran stood up opposite me. His life reality – which he ushered me into and taught me a lot about, things I never knew, things I never imagined were at all possible…
“He taught me a marvelous lesson that left me with no questions about the necessity for giving – not for him, but for me. It is my opportunity to carry out the responsibility that was given to me together with my freedom. It is a translation of one’s ethical statement – into actions, deeds, efforts, persuasions, long trips around the world, endless searches after something small that can make someone else feel good. Eran helped me formulate my values, understand choices that I made, obtain answers to fundamental philosophical-existential questions. Together with me, he consolidated an orderly social ideology and clear daily program – all this without saying a word.”
Simple Calculation: Volunteering as an Economic Propellant
“You can look at the whole idea of giving from a more practical, even quantifiable angle, too,” says Doron Almog. “In economics, we speak about growth stimulants: natural resources, shifts in world markets, supply and demand interplay, strengthening of one currency or another, economic initiatives, foreign trade, investments, and more.
“It is surprising that people do not devote adequate attention to a tremendous growth propellant in the form of a resource potentially existent in every location and in every branch of the economy – volunteering.
“Just imagine what a turnaround would take place if we would add to our Gross National Product one volunteer hour, once a week, for every citizen, from the time he is 12 until age 70. Multiply that by the number of years he volunteers and the number of citizens in the country and you will arrive at astronomical numbers.
“What does that mean on the field? Less distress, more excellent students, fewer road accidents, more available hospital beds, more enrichment for children living on the periphery, less crime, more help for health institutions and nursing facilities, and of course – more money redirected to countless channels that can turn us into the enlightened, developed country that we want to be, a true social-centered country that cares for all its citizens.
“The fact is that this course has already been activated. In the Israeli educational system, a scholastic diploma is conditional on a commitment to the community, which includes volunteer work in a variety of entities and organizations. This is the direction that we have to go in, but to an even greater degree – to make the most of the students’ giving and also, and perhaps this is the main thing, to preserve the spirit of volunteering at older ages as well.
“My argument here was essentially an economic one, but the added value it promises – a strengthening of mutual responsibility and development of a better society – is ten times more significant. And the return is immediate, for us as members of this society, as parents of children who are born into this reality, as human beings.
“Here we find the answer to a profound question: What kind of society do we want to be? What kind of people do we want to be? In Papua, there are no cripples and no disabled. The weak simply do not survive. That is their world. A strong society sees the weak as an inseparable part of it, defines their place and the obligations towards this group, remembers that the strength of a chain is measured by its weakest link. It confronts us with the saying, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” It surpasses even the idea of “Love your fellow man as yourself.” It defines our essence as human beings.”
In your opinion, do military staff members have a greater obligation, as people who have chosen the ethical path of commitment to society and to national security in the form of long term service? Or perhaps to the contrary – they feel that they have already done their “stint” for society…
“We are no different from any other citizen in the country. We made a conscious choice to go on for extended military service, stemming from an understanding of the value of this service. There is no embracing the past, no resting on our laurels, no “I did enough.” In my opinion, anyone who genuinely feels that he accomplished something, who savored the sweet taste of giving to others, who understood what it did to him, who sensed the changes that it generated, which are not at all material – he would be the last one to evade responsibility at the end of his service.”
People must have said to you, too – Doron, relax a little. You did enough…
“Sure. But for me, rest is not a goal. After 120, we’ll all rest. Our time here was given to us in precise measure. Our powers are limited and we can’t waste even a moment. In our everyday lives, we struggle with real challenges. But we have to give ourselves and our lives meaning.
“To smile, laugh, go crazy, relax, take a vacation, travel abroad – yes, these are all part of life. But they are not the goal. The goal is to experience life in its full dimensions, to decipher its explanation, its essence. If I am alive, that means that I exist, that I am able to give my life meaning. It is a lofty sensation – not of joy, not even of happiness, but of a revelation of inner strength.
“The saying that ‘The giver receives more than the receiver’ is very true, but is not big enough to embody the idea. Sisyphus was condemned to eternally do pointless work. Nevertheless, as someone wrote, ‘We can assume that he too was happy, if even for a fraction of a moment, when he had a feeling of satisfaction from what he was doing.’
“To our good fortune, as opposed to Sisyphus, the sense of fulfillment that comes from social action flows from true achievements, from tangible accomplishment, from heart-expanding giving. Add to this the joy of exerted effort – that anyone who ever hauled a stretcher together with his friends knows well. After all, you could always let go, and nobody would even know…”
Do you yourself have an ethical, moral model that you set before you?
“I have a wonderful ethical model in the form of a large family in Ofakim. The mother works for us in the village and every week, she sets another place at her Shabbat table – in addition to her own seven children – for a child from the village whom she hosts for Shabbat, on a regular basis. When I asked them if it isn’t too difficult – after all, they have their own children, and money is tight, and the house is small – they looked at me with genuine amazement. They simply did not understand the question…”
Do you have thoughts about the future?
“Yes, I think a lot about the future. I would like to live in a society that accepts those who are different, that embraces them until they become a part of it. Unfortunately, Eran himself will never experience this. But I remained with Eran’s charge, with the value system he taught me, connected to his world, and with his resounding, unwritten will, that says: ‘Abba, for 23 years, you did for me. You acted, fought, built, left no stone unturned, and you managed to create change. Now that I am no longer here – are you released from this obligation? Is everything over and done with? Did you return your gear and that’s it?’
“Eran confronted me with my deepest truth, with ethical decisions. For me, Eran was the one to bear the message, and I was his emissary.
“I thank him for giving me this opportunity. This gratitude is laced with pain. I don’t wish on anybody to be in this place of personal tragedy. I would not want to see another child born with such a severe level of disability and with such high vulnerability and inability to survive without a supportive, embracing, and most importantly, loving environment. Because at the end of the day, we are speaking about love.”
Doron Almog, (63) is married to Didi, a literature teacher at the Yohanna Jabotinsky Youth Village; he is father of Nitzan and grandfather to three grandchildren. Born in Rishon Letzion, he attended the military boarding school connected to the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. In 1969 he enlisted in the IDF, in the paratroopers brigade. In the Yom Kippur War, he fought the Egyptian forces in Sinai as commander of the Nov 1972 Company, Battalion 202. In that war, his brother Eran was killed defending the Golan Heights, as a tank division commander, Brigade 7, Battalion 82.
Doron commanded the first task force to land in Entebbe during the 1976 rescue operation, and was the first person to step foot in the Uganda airport. His next position was commander of the elite paratroopers spearhead brigade during the first Lebanon War. In Operation Peace for Galilee, when he served as commander of a training base for the paratroopers brigade, he led the division’s reconnaissance unit deep into Lebanon, until Beirut. From 1983-1985 he commanded the Shaldag Unit; in 1988 he was appointed as paratrooper brigade commander; in 1990 he was appointed as commander of the Pillar of Fire formation; and in 1991, as Chief Officer of the infantry and paratroopers. Afterwards, he served as commander of the Gaza Division, headed the Guidance and Leadership Division, and at the end of 2000, was appointed as Major General, the Commander of the Southern Command.
In 2003, he decided to conclude his military service so as to build the Aleh Negev Rehabilitative Village in the Negev for his son Eran, who was born cognitively disabled and was named for his uncle Eran, who fell in the Yom Kippur War. Doron Almog continues to serve as Chairman of the Rehabilitative Village and to work on behalf of the weaker segments of society. In 2007, Almog was awarded Quality Government Knight Award in the “Army and Security” category, “in recognition of his unique contribution, both in military service and civilian life, to defend the weak and helpless and strengthen the quality of Israeli society.” He was among the kindlers of the torches on Independence Day 5762 (2002), in recognition of his work on behalf of the autistic and cognitively disabled in society.
In 2014, he was awarded the Presidential Award for Voluntarism in the “Individual Volunteers” category.
Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, located in the Merhavim municipal region, is a unique rehabilitative village that the Israeli government declared a national project. The Village offers a warm, professional, respectful and loving home to infants, children, and adults with severe mental developmental disabilities. In addition, the place offers rehabilitative options and therapy for residents of the South. The work done in the Village is founded on the philosophy that every person is entitled to receive the most professional care there is and to live a good, dignified life. The village is named for Eran Almog, the son of Didi and General Doron Almog, who was one of the village’s first residents. Doron Almog, Chairman of Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, was among the founders of the village and continues to lead the work and actualize the village’s vision. Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran is part of a network of Aleh residences in Israel. The organization has been active since 1982 and today operates four centers across the country (in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Gedera and the Negev). The village is the realization of a unique, innovative concept and was established in response to the needs of the older residents of the Aleh educational, social, and therapy systems, to allow them to live a creative, dignified life that includes contributing to society.
Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran’s frameworks include: a hydrotherapy pool, a hospital for high dependent patients, a special education school, a rehabilitation day center, a child development clinic, vocational workshops for residents over age 21, a safari and horse-riding track, as well as a dental clinic adapted to people with special needs.
The heart of the village is its residences for youth and adults, which are adapted to the residents’ unique needs and built at a high level, with esthetic design. Residents ages 12 and up are integrated into a daily vocational framework. The vocational center integrates therapeutic occupation with development of life skills and technical capabilities. In the workshops, decorative items and Judaica are created and sold to the general public. Each of the residents has a personal advancement program under the supervision of the village psychologist.
The village offers rehabilitation and therapy options that were not previously available in the Southern region: A Day Rehabilitation Unit, the first and only one of its kind in the Negev, provides a response for people with injuries who require rehabilitation without hospitalization, and a Child Development Unit offers thousands of external therapy sessions a year. The dental clinic for special-needs individuals and the hydrotherapy pool are available to the village residents, clients of the Day Rehabilitation Unit and residents of throughout the area.
An inseparable part of Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran’s vision is community involvement. The village is open to visitors and the many volunteers who come on a regular basis. Among the volunteers are high-school students, soldiers, prisoners under the aegis of the Prison Rehab project, volunteers from hi-tech companies and defense facilities and more.
At the Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran Village, there is a pervasive atmosphere of optimism, love, joy, and advancement. The village staff regards each resident as an entire world, while caring for his unique needs.
For additional information: Aleh website: www.aleh.org